The Lost City (The Omte Origins, #1) by Amanda Hocking – Blog Tour, Spoiler Free Review, Author Q&A, Excerpt

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Publication Date: July 07, 2020

Genre: YA Fantasy

Adventure Rating: 4 Stars

Buy Links: Macmillan | Books-A-Million | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Amanda Hocking, the New York Times bestselling author of The Kanin Chronicles, returns to the magical world of the Trylle Trilogy with The Lost City, the first novel in The Omte Origins—and the final story arc in her beloved series.

The storm and the orphan

Twenty years ago, a woman sought safety from the spinning ice and darkness that descended upon a small village. She was given shelter for the night by the local innkeepers but in the morning, she disappeared—leaving behind an infant. Now nineteen, Ulla Tulin is ready to find who abandoned her as a baby or why.

The institution and the quest

Ulla knows the answers to her identity and heritage may be found at the Mimirin where scholars dedicate themselves to chronicling troll history. Granted an internship translating old documents, Ulla starts researching her own family lineage with help from her handsome and charming colleague Pan Soriano.

The runaway and the mystery

But then Ulla meets Eliana, a young girl who no memory of who she is but who possesses otherworldly abilities. When Eliana is pursued and captured by bounty hunters, Ulla and Pan find themselves wrapped up in a dangerous game where folklore and myth become very real and very deadly—but one that could lead Ulla to the answers she’s been looking for.

*Thank you to the publisher for sending me an e-arc in exchange for an honest review!*

Hocking painted such a vivid, lush world full of wonder and magic. I got major Gail Carson Levine vibes, and my inner teenage self was squealing with joy. It felt nostalgic. It felt sweet. I loved it!

I want to find out so badly about Ulla’s past! It’s so mysterious! I have a few guesses but we will see if I am right! Y’all, I also LOVED that she was written as plus sized! But I also loved that it wasn’t a big deal. It was normal. She is so cool! She is wicked smart and has a ton of courage.

I also loved the side characters! Hanna, Pan, Dagny, and Eliana! Eliana is as mysterious as Ulla. I want to know more about her as well. Pan is the sweetest ever and I for sure ship him and Ulla! Dagny is the surly roomate with a secret heart of gold. And Hanna is the bubbly young teen who wants to be a part of everything.

There are so many mysterious things that are happening in this world that I MUST know!! Like the mysterious stranger Ulla keeps running into!

The only thing I wanted a bit more of was adventure. The book took place all in one city the whole time and basically there was a bunch of information to be found while the characters talked and researched. But it looks like book two will have that adventure I am looking for and I can’t wait!

Prologue

Ten Years Ago

“Tell me about it again,” I entreated—begged, really, in a small voice, small especially for a girl like me. 

Mr. Tulin, on the nights he had a little too much hot tea and brandy, would tell me stories of other, less fortunate babies. One had been left out for the wolves, another drowned in the icy river. Still another was killed by an angakkuq, this time to be mashed into a paste for one of her potions.

On the other nights, he’d try to convince me there wasn’t any time for a story. But I’d beg and plead, and his eyes would glimmer—already milky with cataracts, lighting up when he spoke about monsters. I would pull the covers up to my chin, and his normally crackled baritone would go even lower, rumbling with the threat of the monsters he impersonated.

I was never sure how much he’d made up or what had been passed down to him, as he’d weave through all sorts of patchwork folklore—the monsters and heroes pieced together from the neighboring Inuit, our Norse ancestry, and especially from the troll tribe that Mr. and Mrs. Tulin belonged to—the Kanin.

But I had a favorite story, one that I asked for over and over again.

This one I loved because it was about me, and because it was true.

“Which one?” Mr. Tulin asked, feigning ignorance as he lingered at my bedroom door.

It was dark in my room, except for the cast-iron woodstove in the corner. My room had been a pantry before I was here, before Mr. Tulin had converted it into a tiny bedroom. Outside, the wind howled, and if I hadn’t been buried underneath the blankets and furs, I would’ve felt the icy drafts that went along with all that howling.

“The day you met me,” I replied with unbridled glee. 

“Well, you turned out to be a big one, didn’t ya?” That’s what Mr. Tulin liked to say, particularly when I was scooping another helping of potatoes on my plate at the supper table, and

then I would sheepishly put half a portion back, under the sharp gaze of Mrs. Tulin.

But he wasn’t wrong. I was tall, thick, and pale. By the age of nine I was nearly five feet tall, towering over the kids in the little schoolhouse.

Once, I’d overheard Mrs. Tulin complaining aloud to a neighbor, saying, “I don’t know why they chose our doorstep to leave ’er on. By the size of her, her da’ must be an ogre, and her ma’ must be a nanuq. She’ll eat us out of house and home before she’s eighteen.”

After that, I tried to make myself smaller, invisible, and I made sure that I mended all my clothing and cleaned up after myself. Mrs. Tulin didn’t complain too much about me after that, but every once in a while I would hear her muttering about how they really ought to set up a proper orphanage in Iskyla, so the townsfolk weren’t stuck taking in all the abandoned strays.

I didn’t complain either, and not only because there was nobody to listen. There were a few kids at my school who served as a reminder of how much worse it could be for me. They were sketches of children, really—thin lines, stark shadows, sad eyes, just the silhouettes of orphans.

“You sure you wanna hear that one again, ayuh?” Mr. Tulin said in response to my pleas.

“Yes, please!”

“If that’s the one the lil’ miss wants, then that be the one I tell.” He walked back over to the bed, limping slightly, the way he did every time the temperatures dipped this low.

Once he’d settled on the edge of the bed, his bones cracked and creaked almost as loudly as the bed itself.

“It was a night much like this—” he began.

“But darker and colder, right?” I interjected.

His bushy silver eyebrows pinched together. “Are you telling it this time?”

“No, no, you tell it.”

“Ayuh.” He nodded once. “So I will, then.”

It was a night much like this. The sun hadn’t been seen for days, hiding behind dark clouds that left even the daylight murky blue. When the wind came up, blowing fresh snow so

heavy and thick, you couldn’t hardly see an inch in front of your nose. All over, the town was battened down and quiet, waiting out the dark storm. Now, the folks in Iskyla had survived

many a winter storm, persisting through even the harshest of winters. This wasn’t the worst of the storms we’d faced, but there was something different about this one. Along with the cold and the dark, it brought with it a strange feeling in the air.

“And a stranger,” I interjected again, unable to help myself.

Mr. Tulin didn’t chastise me this time. He just winked and said, “Ayuh, and a stranger.”

The old missus, Hilde, and I were hunkered down in front of the fireplace, listening to the wind rattling the house, when a knock came at the door. 

Hilde—who scoffed whenever Tapeesa the angakkuq spoke of the spirits and monsters—shrieked at me when I got up to answer the door. “Whaddya think you’re doing, Oskar?”

“We’re still an inn, aren’t we?” I paused before I reached the door to look back at my wife, who sat in her old rocker, clutching her knitting to her chest.

Well, of course we were. Her father had opened the inn years ago, back when the mines first opened and we had a brief bout of tourism from humans who got lost on their way to the mines.

But that had long dried up by the time Hilde inherited it. We only had a dozen or so customers every year, mostly Inuit or visiting trolls, but whenever I suggested we close up and move south, Hilde would pitch a fit, reminding me that her family settled Iskyla, and she was settled here until she died.

“Course we’re an inn, but we’re closed,” Hilde said. “The storm’s too bad to open.”

Again the knocking came at the door, pounding harder this time.

“We got all our rooms empty, Hilde!” I argued. “Anyone out in this storm needs a place to stay, and we won’t have to do much for ’em.”

“But you don’t know who—or what—is at the door,”

Hilde stammered, lowering her voice as if it would carry over the howling wind and out the door to whoever waited on our stoop. “No human or troll has any sense being out in a storm like this.”

“Well, someone has, and I aim to find out who it is.”

I headed toward the door, Hilde still spouting her hushed protests, but my mind had been made up. I wasn’t about to let anyone freeze to death outside our house, not when we had ample firewood and room to keep them warm.

When I opened the door, there she stood. The tallest woman I ever saw. She was buried under layers of fabric and fur, looking so much like a giant grizzly bear that Hilde let out a scream.

Then the woman pushed back her hood, letting us see her face. Ice and snow had frozen to her eyebrows and eyelashes, and her short wild hair nearly matched the grizzly fur. She wasn’t much to look at, with a broad face and a jagged scar across her ruddy cheeks, but she made up for it with her size.

She had to duck to come inside, ever mindful of the large bag she carried on her back.

“Don’t bother coming in,” Hilde called at the woman from where she sat angrily rocking. “We’re closed.”

“Please,” the giant woman begged, and then she quickly slipped off her gloves and fumbled in her pockets. “Please, I have money. I’ll give you all I have. I only need a place to stay for the night.”

When she went for her money, she’d pushed back her cloaks enough that I could see the dagger holstered on her hip. The fire glinted off the amber stone in the hilt, the dark

bronze handle carved into a trio of vultures.

It was the symbol of the Omte, and that was a weapon for a warrior. Here was this giant troll woman, with supernatural strength and a soldier’s training. She could’ve killed me and Hilde right there, taken everything we had, but instead she pleaded and offered us all she had.

“Since we’re closed, I won’t be taking any of your money.” I waved it away. “You need sanctuary from the storm, and I’m happy to give it to you.”

“Thank you.” The woman smiled, with tears in her eyes, and they sparkled in the light like the amber gemstone on her dagger.

Hilde huffed, but she didn’t say anything more. The woman herself didn’t say much either, not as I showed her up to her room and where the extra blankets were.

“Is there anything more you’ll be needing?” I asked before I left her alone. 

“Quiet rest,” she replied with a weak smile. 

“Well, you can always holler at me if you need anything. I’m Oskar.”

She hesitated a second before saying, “Call me Orra.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Orra, and I hope you enjoy your stay with us.”

She smiled again, then she shut the door. That was the last I ever saw of her.

All through the night, she made not a peep, which upset Hilde even more, since it gave her nothing to complain about. I slept soundly, but Hilde tossed and turned, certain that Orra would hurt us.

By the time morning came, the wind had stopped and the sun had broken through the clouds for the first time in days. I went up to check on Orra and see if she needed anything, and

I discovered her gone. 

She rode in on the back of the dark storm, and she left before the sun.

Her room had been left empty—except for a little tiny baby, wrapped in a blanket, sleeping in the middle of the bed. The babe couldn’t be more than a few weeks old, but already had a thick head of wild blond hair. When I picked her up, the baby mewled, but didn’t open her eyes.

Not until I said, “Ullaakuut,”—a good-morning greeting.

Then her big amber eyes opened. She smiled up at me, and it was like the sun after the storm.

“That’s how we met.” I beamed, and he smiled back down at me. Mrs. Tulin wasn’t sure if they would keep me, so she wouldn’t let him name me yet, but then they called me Ullaakuut

until it stuck.

“It was quite the introduction,” he agreed with a chuckle. “Oskar!” Mrs. Tulin shouted from the other room. “The fire’s gone cold!”

“I’ll be right down!” he yelled over his shoulder before turning back to me. “Well, you’ve had your story now, and Hilde needs me. You best be getting to sleep now. Good night, Ulla.”

“Good night.” I settled back into the bed, and it wasn’t until he was at the door that I mustered the courage to ask him the question that burned on the tip of my tongue. “How come my mom left me here?”

“I can’t say that I understand it,” he said with a heavy sigh. “But she’d have to have got a mighty good reason to be traveling in that kinda storm, especially with a newborn. She was an Omte warrior, and I don’t know what kind of monsters she had to face down on her way to our doorstep. But she musta known that here you’d be safe.”

“Do you think she’ll come back?” I asked.

His lips pressed into a thin line. “I can’t say, lil’ miss. But it’s not the kind of thing I would hang my hat on. And it’s nothing that you should concern yourself with. You have a home here as long as you need it, and now it’s time for bed.”

Chapter 1

Home

Emma sprinted into my room first, clutching her older brother’s slingshot in her pudgy hands, and down the hall Liam was already yelling for me.

“Ulla! Emma keeps taking my stuff!” Liam rushed into my room in a huff, little Niko toddling behind him.

My bedroom was a maze of cardboard boxes—all of my worldly possessions carefully packed and labeled for my move in six weeks—and Emma darted between them to escape Liam’s grasp.

“He said he was going to shoot fairies in the garden!” Emma insisted vehemently.

Liam rolled his eyes and brushed his thick tangles of curls off his forehead. “Don’t be such a dumb baby. You know there’s no such things as fairies.”

“Don’t call your sister dumb,” I admonished him, which only caused him to huff even louder. For only being seven years old, Liam already had quite the flair for the dramatic. “You know, you’re going to have to learn how to get along with your sister on your own. I’m not going to be around to get in the middle of your squabbles.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” Liam replied sourly. He stared down at the wood floor, letting his hair fall into his eyes. “She’s the one that always starts it.”

“I did not!” Emma shouted back. “I only wanted to protect the fairies!”

“Emma, will you give Liam back his slingshot if he promises not to kill anything with it?” I asked her. She seemed to consider this for a moment, wrinkling up her little freckled nose, but finally she nodded yes.

“I was never really going to kill anything anyway,” he said.

“Promise!” Emma insisted.

“Fine. I promise I won’t kill anything with my slingshot.”

He held his hand out to her, and she reluctantly handed it back to him. With that, he dashed out of the room, and Emma raced after him.

Niko, meanwhile, had no interest in the argument, and instead made his way over to me. I pulled him into my arms, relishing the way his soft curls felt tickling my chin as I held him, and breathing in his little-boy scent—the summer sun on his skin and sugared milk from his breakfast. 

“How are you doing this morning, my sweet boy?” I asked him softly. He didn’t answer, but Niko rarely did. Instead, he curled up more into me and began sucking his thumb.

I know I shouldn’t pick favorites, but Niko would be the one I missed the most. Sandwiched between Emma and the twins, he was quiet and easily overlooked. Whenever I was having a bad day or feeling lonely, I could always count on him for cuddles and hugs that somehow managed to erase all the bad—at least for a few moments.

But now I could only smile at him and swallow down the lump in my throat.

This—all the scraped knees and runny noses, the giggles and tantrums, all the love and chaos and constant noise of a house full of children—had been my life for the past five years. Which was quite the contrast to the frozen isolation of the first fourteen and a half years of my life.

Five years ago, a Kanin tracker named Bryn Aven had been on an investigation that brought her to Iskyla in central Canada, and when I met her, I knew it was my chance out of that town. Maybe it was because of the way she came in, on the back of a storm, or because she was a half-breed. She was also blond like me, and that wasn’t something I saw often in a town populated by trolls and a handful of the native humans of the area, the Inuit.

Most trolls, especially from the three more populous tribes—the Kanin, Trylle, and Vittra—were

of a darker complexion. Their skin ran the gamut of medium brown shades, and their hair was dark brown and black, with eyes that matched. The Kanin and the Trylle looked like attractive

humans, and the Vittra often did as well. 

The Omte had a slightly lighter complexion than that, and they were also more prone to gigantism and physical deformities, most notably in their large population of ogres. With

wild blond hair and blue eyes, the Skojare were the fairest, and they had a tendency to be born with gills, attuned to their aquatic lifestyle.

Each of the tribes even had different skill sets and extraordinary abilities. All of the kingdoms had some mild psychokinetic talents, with the Trylle being the most powerful. The Vittra and the Omte were known for their physical strength and ability to heal, while the Kanin had the skin-color- changing ability to blend in with their surroundings, much like intense chameleons.

Iskyla was officially a Kanin town, and the Inuit coloring wasn’t much different from that of the Kanin. Most everyone around me had a shock of dark hair and symmetrical features. My noticeable differences had always made me an easy target growing up, and seeing the blond-haired tracker Bryn, I recognized a kindred spirit.

Or maybe it was because I could tell she was running from something, and I had been itching to run since as soon as I could walk. The Tulins had been good to me—or as good as an elderly couple who had never wanted kids could be when a baby is dropped on them. But Mrs. Tulin had always made it clear that I would be on my own as soon as I was ready, and when I was fourteen I was sure I was ready.

Fortunately, Bryn had been smart enough—and kind enough—not to leave me to fend for myself. She brought me to Förening, the Trylle capital in Minnesota, and found me a job and a place to stay with friends of hers. 

When I had started as a live-in nanny working for Finn and Mia Holmes, they’d only had two children with another on the way, but already their cottage was rather cramped. Shortly after I moved in, Emma came along—followed by a promotion for Finn to the head of the Trylle royal guard—and Mia insisted a house upgrade was long overdue.

This grand little house, nestled in the bluffs along the Mississippi River—cozy but clean and bright—had enough room for us all—Finn, Mia, Hanna, Liam, Emma, Niko, Lissa, Luna, and me. As of a few months ago, we’d even managed to fit in Finn’s mother, Annali, who had decided to move in with them after her husband passed away last fall.

This home had been my home for years, and really, this family had been my family too. They welcomed me with open arms. I grew to love them, and they loved me. Here, I felt like I belonged and mattered in a way that I had never been able to in Iskyla.

I was happy with them. But now I was leaving all of this behind.

From The Lost City.  Copyright © 2020 by Amanda Hocking and reprinted by permission of Wednesday Books.

1. There’s been so much excitement and anticipation for more books in the world of the Trylle and Kanin.  What made you decide to revisit those worlds now in The Omte Origins trilogy? 

I knew as soon as I wrote Ulla as a small character in Crystal Kingdom (the final book of the Kanin Chronicles) that I was going to write a trilogy about her, but it was just a matter of when. After the Kanin Chronicles, I wanted to take a little break from that world and visit others – which I did with Freeks and the Valkyrie duology. By then, I was so ready to dive back into the world and answer some lingering questions I had left for the Trylle and Kanin.  

2. Why make this the final trilogy?

With the Omte Origins, I feel like I’ve been able to say everything I want to about the worlds. Through the three trilogies, I spent time with all five tribes. Wendy’s mother is Trylle and her father is Vittra, and her story has her visiting both kingdoms. Bryn’s mother is Skojare and her father is Kanin, and her trilogy shows life in the Kanin and Skojare cities, as well as travelling to others beyond that. I won’t say who exactly Ulla’s parents are (that would be spoiling the story) but her journey takes her through the troll kingdoms, with interesting detours through the Omte, Trylle, and Kanin tribes.

3. What are the most challenging aspects of writing a new trilogy that can be read independently, but is set in a world–the Trylle and Kanin–that you’ve written about before?  

The hardest challenge is getting new readers caught up with the world and the lingo without feeling repetitive and boring to longtime fans of the series. I try use this an opportunity to show characters and situations from different angles. The Wendy the audience meets at the beginning of Switched is vastly different Wendy than the that Ulla knows in the Omte Origins. So for new readers, they get introduced Wendy as she currently is, and for repeat readers, they can see who Wendy has become and who she appears to be through the eyes of an average citizen with Ulla.

4. What’s the most fascinating thing you researched while writing The Lost City?

With the Omte Origins, I really looked back at the course of troll history, and their past has dovetailed with the Vikings and other artic peoples. So I did a lot research on early Vikings and indigenous arctic people, primarily the Inuit and the Sami. My favorite parts were reading their folklore. I even got an Inuit cookbook, and I attempted to make Bannock (a traditional Inuit bread). It did not turn out well, but I blame that entirely on my cooking skills (or lack thereof) and not the recipe.

5. The “Glossary” and “Tribal Facts” sections at the end of the book are fascinating and really help create a layered, fleshed out world.  Was putting those together as much fun as writing the novel?  

It was so much fun. It’s been over ten years and nine books (and several short stories), so I have spent a lot time of thinking and doing world-building. I honestly have enough information for a history book about the worlds of the Trylle, but I don’t know there’s a demand for fictional textbooks. The Tribal Facts were actually one of the first things I wrote for the Omte series, because I went through and get myself reacquainted and made sure I had all my important facts straight.

6. Was your writing routine affected by the stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic?  

My routine itself hasn’t been too affected, since I write from home, but I would say that the stress has a negative impact on me, the way it has for many of us that work in creative fields – or any field at all, honestly. My husband has been working from home, and my stepson had been doing long distance learning before summer break, but that hasn’t really changed too much for me. I usually work after they go to bed and stay up late into the early morning hours.

7. Were there any favorite songs or music you listened to while writing this book?  

Yes, definitely! I listen to so much music when I write, and I even have curated playlists to go along with my books on Spotify. open.spotify.com/user/127756215 Some of my favorite songs to write to were “Ella” by Myrkur, “Wild World” by Cat Stevens, and “Delicate” by Taylor Swift. I also listened to a lot of Wardruna, who are this Norwegian band who make traditional Nordic music with historically accurate instruments. For the soundtrack to the Omte Origins, I wanted it be a blend of traditional Nordic music, mellow seventies folk to go with the trolls delayed pop culture tastes, and pop music that gets through with the trendier younger generations of trolls.

8. Do you think the music you listen to has an influence on the stories?  Or do the stories influence the music you choose?

I think it’s both, honestly. When I’m picking songs for the playlist, I definitely choose them based on the kind of emotions I want to feel and the tone I want to set for whatever I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll put particularly romantic songs on repeat when writing a love scene or an angry fast-paced instrumental for a fight scene.

9. What books or authors are you reading or excited to read lately?

I’m super excited about Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy. It comes out the same day as The Lost City, and it’s about a plus-size teenage girl who discovers that she can fly. I recently read A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Rosanne Brown, and I’m counting down the days until The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna and The Project by Courtney Summers.

10.  Any hints you can share about what’s coming next after The Omte Origins Trilogy?

I’m currently working on a stand-alone fantasy inspired by Greek mythology, but I don’t know when it will be out yet. I’ve got ideas for dozens of projects after that, and I’m working hard (and having fun) getting through them all.

AMANDA HOCKING is the author of over twenty young adult novels, including the New York Times bestselling Trylle Trilogy and Kanin Chronicles. Her love of pop culture and all things paranormal influence her writing. She spends her time in Minnesota, taking care of her menagerie of pets and working on her next book.

Social Links:

Author website | Twitter @Amanda_Hocking | Facebook | Author Blog | Pinterest | GoodReads

The Summer Set by Aimee Agresti – Feature, Author Q&A, Excerpt

Publisher: Graydon House Books

Publication Date: May 12, 2020

Genre: Fiction

Buy Links: Harlequin  | Barnes & Noble | Amazon | Books-A-Million| Powell’s

I am so excited to feature this gorgeous book on my blog today! It seems like the perfect read for Summer, especially if you were/ are in drama!

With a setting inspired by the real-life Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires where stars like Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lauren Graham, and Chris Pine have performed, THE SUMMER SET (Graydon House Books; May 12; $17.99) is a salacious rom-com, beach read perfect for Broadway nerds and Hollywood gossips alike.

Charlie Savoy was once Hollywood’s hottest A-lister. Now, ten years later, she’s pushing forty, exiled from the film world back at the summer Shakespeare theater in the Berkshires that launched her career—and where her first love, Nick, is the artistic director.

It’s not exactly her first choice. But as parts are cast and rehearsals begin, Charlie is surprised to find herself thriving: bonding with celebrity actors, forging unexpected new friendships, and even reigniting her spark with Nick despite their complicated history.

Until Charlie’s old rival, Hollywood’s current “It Girl,” is brought on set, threatening to undo everything she’s been working towards. As the drama amps up both on the stage and behind the curtains, Charlie must put on one heck of a show to fight for the second chance she deserves in her career and in love.

2

I MISSED YOU TOO

Charlie studied herself in her bathroom mirror. In just a week her bruised eye had faded to the dull gray of rancid meat, now easily disguised by concealer. She flat-ironed her raven hair, securing it in a sleek, low ponytail, then rummaged the closet for her most professional-looking getup: that slim black suit, pale pink silk blouse with the bow at the neck and the stilettos she only wore when she felt compelled to impress. Her wardrobe from that perfume ad a decade earlier but timeless nonetheless, just like the moniker that had been etched in script on the curved bottle of the fragrance.

Outside, Boston did its best impersonation of her supposed hometown, London. (Though she had lived away from there enough during childhood to have eluded the accent.) The dreary May rain made her think of her mom: the estimable Dame Sarah Rose Kingsbury. News of Charlie’s incident had warranted mentions in a few celebrity weeklies and, unfortunately, made the hop across the pond. Her mother had called, texted and finally, after no response, emailed: Charlie, Did you receive my voice mail and text? I trust you’re alright. Another of your stunts? Please respond. Love, Mum. Her mom’s correspondence always scanned like a telegram, full of stops and full stops—much like their relationship itself. Charlie, reveling in being briefly unreachable and not in the mood to answer questions, hadn’t yet bothered to replace her phone and had indeed missed the call but wrote back assuring her mom that she was fine, though the accident had not, in fact, been performance art.

By the time Charlie reached the foreboding Suffolk County Courthouse, her lawyer/friend Sam—who had shepherded her through the theater purchase (while questioning her sanity)—was already there pacing, barking into her phone.

“This should be easy,” Sam told her, hanging up, hugging her while scrolling her inbox. Sam wore suits and radiated responsibility, two things Charlie found comforting in a lawyer. “Be contrite and it should be open-and-shut for community service.”

The sterile courtroom’s pin-drop silence made Charlie shiver. Next to her, Sam tucked her phone in her bag and rose to her feet, gesturing for Charlie to stand as the judge materialized at the bench. Charlie found it oddly reassuring that the judge was the kind of woman who wore pearls and a frilly collar outside her robe.

“You were okay with my email, right?” Sam whispered, as they sat again.

“What email?” she whispered back.

“My email. An hour ago? You have got to get a new phone,” Sam scolded.

“I know, I know—”

“There was this arrangement, last minute, I hope you’ll be amenable to but—”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Charlie pleaded.

The judge had begun speaking, so Sam hushed her. Too late.

“Ms. Savoy, this is the part where I get to talk.” The judge looked up from the paper she had been reading aloud. “Maybe it was different in your episodes of Law & Order?”

“No, ma’am, I mean, Your Honor, sir, ma’am, no,” Charlie stumbled. She had been wrong about the judge. The woman continued on about the damage Charlie caused and the significant hours of service required like Charlie was the honoree at one of those Comedy Central roasts, albeit one that could end with her in a jail cell.

Until finally, the judge cut to the chase: “…an assignment has presented itself,” she said slowly. “Which will make fine use of Ms. Savoy’s expertise…” Charlie caught Sam’s side-eye. “So Charlotte Savoy shall be required to complete sixty days with the Chamberlain Summer Theater in—”

“NO!” Charlie expelled the word, an anaphylactic response. The judge scowled as though jail might still be an option. “Sorry, Your Honor, I just mean—can I object?” Sam shot her a lethal glare. “It’s just that, well—” Charlie tried again as a door at the back of the courtroom creaked open, footsteps echoing. She turned to discover the equivalent of a ghost.

Nick Blunt—director, ex, first love, disappointment, invertebrate—heading her way.

“Mr. Blunt, thank you for joining us,” the judge said, unimpressed.

Charlie’s posture straightened, heartbeat ticking faster than seemed medically sound. She felt betrayed by her own being, muscles, nerves, ashamed of this reaction.

“Sorry, Your Honor,” he said in that deep rasp.

Charlie wished she hated that voice. And it seemed an abomination that he could still be attractive—physically at least.

Rugged with an athletic build, he wore black jeans, a blazer and aviator sunglasses, which he pulled off as he walked (pure affectation since, to her knowledge, it was still raining outside), tucking them into the V of his slim sweater.

He took his place beside Charlie, flashing that smile he deployed when he aimed to be his most charming.

“Hi there,” he said, as though surprised to be meeting this way.

“Shouldn’t you be wearing a cape?” Charlie rolled her eyes, focused on the judge reading again, and returned her body to its proper slouch, recalibrating her expression between boredom and disgust.

“I missed you too, Charlie,” he whispered back.

From the corner of her eye, Charlie spotted the sharp beak of that tattoo—the meadowlark—curving around from the back of his neck. It was still there, which gave her a pang of affection, a flare-up she forced herself to snuff out. She imagined how they might look to those few people sitting in the rows behind them. Nick and her with these identical birds inked onto the backs of their necks, midflight and gazing at each other anytime he stood on her right side, as he did now. Mirror images, bookends, the birds’ once-vibrant golden hue as faded as the memory of the hot, sticky night she and Nick had stolen away from campus to get them together.

Over the years, she had considered having hers removed or morphed into some other design, but why should she? She liked it. At face value. Charlie sighed again, more loudly than intended, as her mind sped to how this summer would now be.

“Ms. Savoy, is there a problem?” the judge asked, irked.

“Your Honor, I just wondered—is there a littered park or something? Instead?”

“We’re fine, Your Honor.” Sam patted Charlie’s arm in warning.

“Ms. Savoy will report to service June 1.” The judge slammed the gavel, which, to Charlie, sounded like a nail being hammered into a coffin.

“I had a client last week who’s cleaning restrooms at South Station this summer,” Sam said apologetically as they walked out.

Charlie just charged ahead down the hall, an urgent need to escape, her mind struggling to process it all.

“So, craziest thing happened,” Nick launched in, catching up to them at the elevator. “I was reading the news and saw about your little mishap—” He sounded truly concerned for a moment.

“Don’t pretend like you don’t have a Google alert on me,” Charlie cut him off, stabbing the down button too many times.

“You always were a terrible driver—”

“That river came outta nowhere—”

“But a stellar swimmer—”

She nodded once. She couldn’t argue with that.

He went on, “So I made a few calls and—”

“Don’t be fooled by…that.” She waved her hand back toward the courtroom. “You need me more than I need you.”

The elevator opened.

“We’ll see about that.” He let them on first. Charlie hit the button again-again-again to close the doors, but he made it in. “How long has it been, anyway?”

“You know how long it’s been,” she said as the doors closed so she was now looking at their reflection. It had been six years, three months, two weeks and two days since they last saw each other. At the long-awaited premiere for Midnight Daydream—which should’ve been a thrilling night since a series of snags had pushed the film’s release date back two years after filming. But instead of celebratory toasts, it had ended with a glass of the party’s signature cocktail—a messy blackberry-infused bourbon concoction the shade of the night sky—being thrown. In retrospect, she thought, there’d been so many signs the movie was cursed.

“You’re just mad your self-imposed exile is over.” He smirked.

“Always with the probing psychoanalysis.” She watched the floor numbers descend, doors finally opening.

Sam scurried out ahead of them. “My work here is done. I’m sure you two have a lot of catching up to do.” She gave Charlie an air-kiss before striding off.

“Wait, no, I just need to—” Charlie tried to stop her, but Sam had already hopped in a cab.

“So, I have an office not too far, off Newbury Street, off-season headquarters for Chamberlain—” Nick started.

“Luckily you’re usually phoning it in, so I haven’t had the privilege of running into you around town.” She walked ahead in the cool, pelting rain.

He stayed where he was. “I’d invite you out for a drink—”

“It’s, like, 10 a.m. That’s too early. Even for you—” She glanced back.

“Summer is gorgeous in the Berkshires, as you may recall,” he shouted, sunglasses back on, absurdly, and that smile again. “Welcome back to Chamberlain, Charlie.

Excerpted from The Summer Set by Aimee Agresti, Copyright © 2020 by Aimee Agresti. 

Published by Graydon House Books.

Q&A with Aimee Agresti

Q: Please give your elevator pitch for The Summer Set.

A: Gladly! THE SUMMER SET is a romp about a former Hollywood It Girl—Charlie Savoy—who flamed out, left the film world and now is almost 40 and back at the summer Shakespeare theater where she got her start as a teen….and where her ex is the artistic director. Drama and hijinks ensue! But it’s really a universal story about old flames, old friends, old rivals and second acts: having the courage to shake up your life!

Q: Which came first: the characters or plot line?

A: They sort of arrived together! This idea has been with me for a long time: I always had Charlie, my main character, and this sense of wanting her to be embarking on a “second act.” I wanted to tell the story of a bold, wild child kind of star who flamed out early and had to start over and figure out what she truly wanted. I always knew this character would be the type who seemed confident to anyone watching but was actually much more vulnerable deep down. Someone who’s acting as much offstage as onstage!

Q: Why do you love Charlie and why should readers root for her?

A: I really loved writing this character: she’s impulsive and aggressive and tough and uncontrollable. But all of her bravado is covering up how out of place she feels, how nervous she is to be back in the theater world after feeling like she failed in her film career. Anyone who has ever tried to act like they had it all together while actually being unsure on the inside (which I think is all of us, right?!) will understand Charlie and feel she’s a kindred spirit.

Q: We can see from your bio that you have written extensively about entertainment topics. Have you ever been involved in theatre yourself? If so, in which capacities? If not, what fascinates you about the theatre world?

A: As anyone who saw me as Miss Jones in Sherwood High School’s 1994 production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying would know: I am that drama geek who loves theater as much as humanly possible while having no actual talent. 😉  I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town with a fantastic theater—the Olney Theatre in Olney, MD—and I volunteered there (offstage!) all through high school. It was an amazing place because the actors were incredible, they were New York-based, and they would come and actually live together at a residence on the theater property. I’ve always had an overactive imagination so I remember wondering what went on there: which ones were friends, which ones weren’t, was anyone hooking up?! I was fascinated. That experience hanging around there definitely sowed the very early seeds of this novel!

Q: Obviously you’ve interacted with many celebrities. Who were the most fascinating to talk to? 

A: Oooh, there were so many fun ones: George Clooney is my all-time favorite (he’s EVERYONE’S favorite!) because he’s just a supernice guy and is that type who seems to always be having a great time. Some more of my favorites who also had that same warm spirit and were so much fun to chat with: Sarah Jessica Parker, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, Hugh Grant, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the list goes on!

 Q: If you could star in a movie or Broadway show, which one would you choose and why?

A: HA! OMG, I love this question! Since THE SUMMER SET is set at a summer theater, I’ll choose Broadway! Wow, there are just. So. Many! I would love to be Angelica in Hamilton and Mimi in Rent and Roxie in Chicago! I assure you I would be absolutely TERRIBLE in all of these roles but it would be tons of fun!

Q: What was your last 5 star read?

A: I just re-read a favorite–THE LOST VINTAGE by the wonderful Ann Mah! It’s an absolute gem of a novel about love, secrets and drama in French wine country. Beautiful writing, fantastic storytelling and it also satisfies the wanderlust we’re all feeling these days.

Q: What is one thing about publishing you wish someone would have told you?

A: Oh wow, I feel like even five books in, I’m still learning! But I think one thing I never would’ve expected before I published my first novel is that every time a book comes out you feel that HUGE excitement but also that little rush of nerves, like: “OMG this thing that, for years, only lived in my head and on my laptop is now out there!!! Aaaah!” Or maybe that’s just me? 😉

Q: What inspired you to become a writer?

A: A love of reading! My mom is a librarian so I grew up reading everything in sight and I’ve just always loved escaping into books. I went to journalism school and worked in magazines, which I absolutely adored, but I always dreamed of writing novels, so I feel incredibly lucky to get to do this!

Q: What was your journey to get your first book published?

A: Great question! My first novel was ILLUMINATE, the first of my YA Gilded Wings Trilogy. I tend to write the book I most want to read at any given time and I got lucky that when I was in the mood for YA, so were a lot of other people, so that worked out! But I actually wrote another book BEFORE that one—it was a totally different vibe and not YA–that just didn’t hit things right, for whatever reason. I always say that publishing–the fiction world especially–is like falling in love and you need the right person to read the right manuscript on the right day and have the right connection to it in order to get published. I feel very lucky every time a book gets published!

Q: Let’s talk about your writing, what is your writing process like? Do you follow an outline or do you just see where the story leads you? 

A: I’m a major outliner! I need to have everything mapped out. I need to know this journey has a destination. I admire writers who can let things unfold as they go—how freeing that must be!—but I’m a planner, it gives me comfort. Although, there are plenty of twists that only present themselves when you’re in the middle of writing so I do always let myself deviate from my outline too, great stuff comes out of that!

Q: Do you share your work along the way or wait until it is complete to have others read?

A: My sister is my beta reader and she is amazing! Sometimes I’ll give her the book as I’m writing it, as I did with THE SUMMER SET, and other times I’ll wait until it’s all finished (like with my previous novel, CAMPAIGN WIDOWS), it mostly depends on how tight the deadline is! She’s incredible and I’m so grateful for her close eye and the time she spends doing this for me. Since she enjoys the same books/films/stories/genres as I do, I know that if there’s something in my novel that isn’t working for her then it’s not going to work for any reader! She’s the best! If you’re reading this: Hi, sis!

Q: What inspired you to write The Summer Set

A: I’ve always loved the film/TV/theater/music universe. I started out writing for entertainment magazines—Us Weekly, Premiere—and those jobs were incredible and offered me this amazing glimpse into that celebrity world with all of its ups and downs and drama and excitement. I’m an arts girl so I think there’s something magical about the way a great show, whether on stage or screen, can transport you or connect with you or seem to understand you. And I think the people who are able to bring those stories to life are fascinating!

Q: What projects are you currently working on?

A: I’m (slooooowly) at work on the next novel! It’s in those early stages but it’s an idea I’ve had for a long time so I’m excited! Wish me luck!!

Q: What’s your favorite genre? 

A: Oooh, that’s tough! I actually will read anything and everything! For me, it just depends on the story. I’m always on board for great writing and the kind of storytelling that keeps me hooked and turning pages!

Q: Who is your favorite author? 

A: I could never choose just one! I grew up on the classics (Austen, the Brontes, Hemingway, Salinger, on and on!) and I adore them so much and revisit them often like checking in on old friends! As for contemporary authors, I love Tom Perrotta, Nick Hornby, Emma Straub, Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Gilbert, to name a few! There are so many that I love and admire!

Q: What are your top 3 favorite books of all time

A: Oh man, this is REALLY tough because there are just soooo many. But I’ll go with these:  

–Pride and Prejudice: I could read this every day! I’m completely Jane Austen-obsessed so I actually feel that way about all of her books. Even now, I’m thinking: should I choose Emma?! Or Persuasion?! How do you choose?!

–The Catcher in the Rye: I love everything Salinger. But Holden Caulfield was my first literary crush!

–A Moveable Feast: I also love everything Hemingway but I’ll go with this one because I’m pretty sure I belong in Paris in the ‘20s. (Aside from my very bad French.)

Q: How do you decide what kind of journey you want your characters to go on?

A: That’s a fantastic, huge question! Those first flashes I always have of a novel are of the main character in some sort of inner turmoil. So I tend to know the reason I’m going to be telling their story in the first place, but figuring out how to show it all and get from point A to B to C, takes a lot of mapping out!

Q: Would you ever write YA fantasy novels again?

A: I love this question! Absolutely, if the right story sparked! I had so much fun writing the Gilded Wings Trilogy, I miss those characters and still think of them and what adventures they might still be having! And I do miss writing magic and superpowers, it was always exciting to get to dream up those elements. So, you never know, I might just have to get back to that! 😉

Aimee Agresti is the author of Campaign Widows and The Gilded Wings trilogy for young adults. A former staff writer for Us Weekly, she penned the magazine’s coffee table book Inside Hollywood. Aimee’s work has also appeared in People, Premiere, DC magazine, Capitol File, the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Washington City Paper, Boston magazine, Women’s Health and the New York Observer, and she has made countless TV and radio appearances, dishing about celebrities on the likes of Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, E!, The Insider, Extra, VH1, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and HLN. Aimee graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism and lives with her husband and two sons in the Washington, DC, area.

Social Links:

Author Website

Twitter: @AimeeAgresti

Instagram: @aimeeagresti

Facebook: @AimeeAgrestiAuthor

Goodreads

Night of the Dragon (Shadow of the Fox, #3) by Julie Kagawa – Spoiler Free Review, Q&A, Excerpt

Publisher: Inkyard Press

Publication Date: March 31, 2020

Genre: YA, Fantasy

Adventure Rating: 4 Stars

Buy Links:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble |IndieBound | Books-A-Million | AppleBooks | Google Play

“Kitsune shapeshifter Yumeko has given up the final piece of the Scroll of a Thousand Prayers in order to save everyone she loves from imminent death. Now she and her ragtag band of companions must journey to the wild sea cliffs of Iwagoto in a desperate last-chance effort to stop the Master of Demons from calling upon the Great Kami dragon and making the wish that will plunge the empire into destruction and darkness.

Shadow clan assassin Kage Tatsumi has regained control of his body and agreed to a true deal with the devil — the demon inside him, Hakaimono. They will share his body and work with Yumeko and their companions to stop a madman and separate Hakaimono from Tatsumi and the cursed sword that had trapped the demon for nearly a millennium.

But even with their combined skills and powers, this most unlikely team of heroes knows the forces of evil may be impossible to overcome. And there is another player in the battle for the scroll, a player who has been watching, waiting for the right moment to pull strings that no one even realized existed… until now.

Master storyteller Julie Kagawa concludes the enthralling journey into the heart of the fantastical Empire of Iwagoto in the third book of the Shadow of the Fox trilogy. As darkness rises and chaos reigns, a fierce kitsune and her shadowy protector will face down the greatest evil of all. A captivating fantasy for fans of Sabaa Tahir, Sarah J. Maas and Marie Lu.

*Thank you so much to Netgalley and Inkyardpress for the e-arc and for having me on the tour!*

Did you notice the dead flowers in my photo? Yes? Because that’s how my heart is after reading the end of this book. Dead. It hurt and then it died. What. An. Ending. Kagawa. Wow. This was my reaction to the ending of this series:

Anyways, moving on from the shocking ending, I loved this book! It held the same magic that book one did so I am one happy reader. This was my first Kagawa series, so I will DEFINITELY be reading everything by her. This series reads like an anime.

Yumeko becomes soooooo freaking cool, y’all. She really grows into her own leader. She faces some TOUGH decisions. She also finally finds out answers to many mysteries of her life. And they are some big answers! I do not envy her. She goes through some stuff, man.

I LOVED Tatsumi/ Hakaimono. Their mashup still makes me chuckle sometimes. They do well together. Their evolution is probably my favorite to read about. It was super interesting to see how they share a body and feelings and memories.

The other side characters were great to read about too. How they all functioned as a unit was fun to see. They all worked well together.

The premise of the book was EPIC. It went from like, a cute, fun story in the first book to this huge climax in the last book. It was crazy! And of course, I loved the adventure going on.

I thought this was a perfect end to an amazing series! I literally tell everyone to go read this. Especially if you love anime. It just gives me those vibes!

Excerpted from Night of the Dragon by Julie Kagawa. © 2020 by Julie Kagawa, used with permission by Inkyard Press.

One thousand years ago

In the long years of his existence, the number of times he had been summoned from Jigoku could be counted on one claw.

Other demon lords had been summoned before. Yaburama. Akumu. The oni lords were too powerful not to have some en-terprising blood mage attempt a contract with them, though such rituals often ended badly for the arrogant human who thought they could enslave an oni lord. The four of them were, admit-tedly, a proud bunch, and did not take kindly to an insignificant mortal attempting to bend them to their will. They humored the blood mage long enough to hear what the human was offering, and if it did not interest them, or if the mage foolishly tried to assert dominance, they would rip him apart and do what they pleased in the mortal realm until they were sent back to Jigoku.
It had always amused Hakaimono when a mortal tried to summon him. Especially that moment when they gazed upon him for the first time and fully realized what they had done.

Narrowing his eyes, he gazed around, peering through smoke and ignoring the brief feeling of vertigo that always accompanied being dragged from Jigoku into the mortal realm. A growl of murderous annoyance rumbled in his throat. Already, he was not in the best of moods. Akumu had been scheming again, trying to weaken Hakaimono’s forces behind his back, and he had been on his way to deal with the devious Third General when black fire had erupted over his skin, words of blood magic echoing in his head as he abruptly found himself in the mortal realm. Now he stood in the center of a ruin, broken walls and shattered pillars surrounding him, the scent of death thick on the air, and contemplated squeezing the head of the mage responsible until it popped like an egg in his claws.

The stones under his feet were sticky and had a sweet, coppery smell he recognized instantly. Lines of blood had been painted over the ground in a familiar circle, with words and sigils of power woven in a complex pattern. A summoning circle, and a powerful one at that. Whomever the blood mage was, they had done their research. Though it wouldn’t save them in the end.

“Hakaimono.”

The First Oni looked down. A woman stood at the edge of the blood circle, black robes and long hair seeming to blend into the shadows. She clutched a knife in slender fingers, her pale arm covered in red to the elbow.

A chuckle escaped him. “Well, don’t I feel important,” he said, crouching down to better see the woman. She gazed coolly back. “Summoned by the immortal shadow herself. I am curious, however.” He raised a talon, watching the human over curved black claws the length of her arm. “If you rip off an immortal’s head, do you think it will die?”

“You will not kill me, First Oni.” The woman’s voice was neither amused nor afraid, though the certainty in it made him smirk. “I am not so foolish as to attempt a binding, nor will I ask much of you. I have but a single request, and after that, you are free to do what you like.”

“Oh?” Hakaimono chuckled, but admittedly, he was curi-ous. Only the very desperate, foolish or powerful called on one of the four oni generals, and only for the most ambitious of re-quests. Like destroying a castle, or wiping out an entire gen-eration. The risk was too great for anything less. “Let’s hear it then, human,” he prompted. “What is this one task you would have me undertake?”

“I need you to bring me the Dragon scroll.”

Hakaimono sighed. Of course. He had forgotten it was that time again in the mortal world. When the great scaly one him-self would rise to grant a wish to an insignificant, short-lived human. “You disappoint me, mortal,” he growled. “I am not a hound that fetches upon command. You could have gotten the amanjaku to retrieve the scroll for you, or one of your own human warrior pets. I have been called on to slaughter armies and tear strongholds to dust. Fetching the Dragon’s Prayer is not worth my time.”

“This is different.” The woman’s voice was as unruffled as ever. If she knew she was in danger of being ripped apart and devoured by an annoyed First Oni, she did not show it. “I have already sent my strongest champion to retrieve the scroll, but I fear he has betrayed me. He wants the power of the Dragon scroll for himself, and I cannot let the Wish slip away now. You must find him and take back the scroll.”

“One human?” Hakaimono curled a lip. “Not much of a challenge.”

“You do not know Kage Hirotaka,” the woman said quietly. “He is the greatest warrior the Empire of Iwagoto has seen in a thousand years. He is kami-touched, but also trained in the way of the samurai. His talents with both blade and magic are so great, the emperor himself praised his achievements. He has killed men, yokai and demons in waves, and will be perhaps the single greatest opponent you have ever faced, Hakaimono.” “I very seriously doubt that.” The First Oni felt a smirk cross his face as he breathed in the blood-scented air. “But now, I’m intrigued. Let’s see if this champion of shadow is as good as you say. Where can I find this demonslaying human?” “Hirotaka’s estate lies outside a village called Koyama, ten miles from the eastern border of Kage territory,” the woman re-plied. “It’s not hard to find, but it is rather isolated. Aside from Hirotaka’s men and servants, you won’t be opposed. Find Hi-rotaka, kill him and bring the scroll to me. Oh, and one more thing.” She raised the knife, observing the bloody, glittering edge. “I cannot have anyone suspecting me of blood magic. Not now, when the night of the Wish is so close.” Her black eyes rose to his, narrowing sharply. “There can be no witnesses, Hakaimono. No survivors. Kill everyone there.”

“I can do that.” A slow grin spread across the oni’s face, and his eyes gleamed red with bloodlust. “This will be fun.”

He would come to regret those words more than any other in his existence.”
Q&A with Julie Kagawa
Q: What were your biggest influences when creating this world in story, whether they be legends, folklore, anime, manga or other novels?
A:  Anime, Manga and video games have been my biggest influences when writing the world of Shadow of the Fox, but also the works of Akira Kurosawa like The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Rashomon.   

Q: Would you ever consider using this world and/or some of the characters in future stories that you write?
A:  I love Japanese legends and folklore, so I might very well return to this world someday.  Maybe not through the eyes of a kitsune, but there is always the possibility of future books set in the land of Iwagoto.  

Q: Did Night of the Dragon have a certain soundtrack you listened to while writing?
A: I listen to a lot of movie and anime soundtracks while writing, but nothing specific.  
 
Q: What was the hardest scene to write? What was the easiest?
A:  The hardest scene was the last battle with the Final Boss at the end.  Without giving away spoilers, there was a lot of kitsune magic, illusion and misdirection, and trying to show everything that was going on without making it too confusing was a challenge.  I don’t remember an easy scene to write, but I did enjoy writing one of the final chapters (where I hope everyone cries).  
Q: Did you hide any secrets in your book? (names of friends, little jokes, references to things only some people will get)
A: There are a few references that only those very familiar with Japanese folklore would get.  For example, the names of the Reika’s two dogs, Chu and Ko, come from a Japanese novel called The Eight Dog Chronicles, which has been adapted into manga, anime, and even video games.  In Soul of the Sword, Yumeko and her friends are on their way to the home of the tengu, when they encounter a pair of magical stone guardians called Yoshitsune and Benkei, two real life historical figures that inspired countless legends and stories.  In folklore, Minamoto no Yoshitsune was a near mythical swordsman who had been trained by the king of the tengu, and Benki was a warrior monk who was his stalwart companion. 
 
Q: What do you hope people remember about Night of the Dragon?
A: I hope people come away with a new appreciation of Japanese myth and folklore, particularly all the wonderfully bizarre yokai, yurei and bakemono that populate these stories.  From kitsune and tanuki to oni and kirin, I hope it inspires readers to learn more about the world of Japanese myth and legend. And I hope people remember how much they cried at the end of the story. 
 
Q: What is your dream cast for Night of the Dragon?
A:  I am so bad at this question.  I really can’t answer it because one: I am terrible at keeping up with current actors/actresses.  And two: I see everyone in Shadow of the Fox as anime characters.



Q: Is there a character that you found challenging to write? Why?

A:  Taiyo Daisuke was probably the most challenging, because it was a balancing act of making him a noble and making him likable.  Nobles in fantasy stories tend to be arrogant, snooty, mocking, and manipulatieve. More often than not they are the villains, or at least an unpleasant obstacle the heroes must get around.  Daisuke was very clearly an aristocrat, so I made very certain to give him qualities atypical of a noble. Kindness, humility, and viewing everyone, even the ronin, as an equal was certainly not the mindset of a typical samurai, but it was necessary to make Daisuke a well loved member of the team and not a person the reader, and the other characters, hated.   


Q: How does a typical writing day look like for you?

A: I work from home, so times vary, but I try to head into my office and start writing around 9am everyday.  I have a quota of 1,000 words a day, except when I’m close to deadline, then the word count jumps by a few hundred words.  Sometimes I reach my quota in a few hours, sometimes it takes me all day, but I try not to stop writing until my word quota is reached.



Q: What is your current read?

A: At the moment, the words on my computer screen, lol.  Its deadline crunch time, so my current WIP is the only thing I have time for now. Hopefully I can get back to pleasure reading when I’m finished.


Q: What part of the Shadow of the Fox series was the most fun to write?


A: I really enjoyed writing the parts with Yumeko’s kitsune illusion magic.  One of my favorite scenes was when Yumeko and the others attended a formal tea ceremony with a snooty noble of the Shadow Clan.  I won’t give away spoilers, but what Yumeko does at the tea ceremony still makes me smile, and remains one of my favorite parts of the series.


Q: Was there a scene or backstory about a favorite character that didn’t make it into the final version of NIGHT OF THE DRAGON that you can share with us?

A: There was an earlier draft where Taka, Lord Seigetsu’s servant, was a human boy instead of a small, one-eyed yokai who could see the future.  But it seemed more interesting to have him be a yokai instead. Also in an earlier draft, Yumeko was not a half kitsune but a full fox who lived in a den with her grandmother fox and two brothers.  That also, got cut, as a half-human Yumeko was more sympathetic and relatable than one who was full kitsune.



Q: The Iron Fey series was your first large published success. How did you feel as a writer when you reflect upon those books? How did/do you feel as a reader when you read or re-read those books?

A: The Iron Fey series holds a very special place in my heart as my first published series. I know I’ve grown since then, and when I re-read the Iron Fey I know I’ve come a long way as an author. But I also know that I wrote the best books I could at the time, so even though I wouldn’t write them the same way now, I’m happy with them.


Q: What is it about fantasy that draws you to it?

A: Is everything a good answer? I love myths and legends, other worlds, magic, swords, wizards, dragons, evil gods, epic quests, and the battle between good and evil.  I read to escape, but also to travel to far away places and encounter creatures and beings I would never meet in real life. Who hasn’t daydreamed about flying on the back of a dragon?  I read fantasy for the same reason.  


Q: How much research goes into your books and at what point do you stop using research and build off it?

A: It depends on how much I already know about certain aspects of the book.  For example, from the amount of anime and manga I’d consumed over the years, I knew a lot about kitsune, oni, tanuki, and various other Japanese monsters.  I still did a fair amount of research, though it was more about the samurai and the Sengoku Jidai, the era I was basing the book off of. I never really stop researching, though most of it goes into book one, which is where much of the world building takes place.




Q: Would you ever write adult fantasy? If so, what would it look like?

A: I certainly have considered it, though it would look a lot like my YA books, just with older protagonists.   When I write, I don’t think “This is for teens,” I just write how I would always write. Really, the only thing that differentiates YA from adult is the age of the heroes and the lack of graphic sex in YA.  And even that is changing.


Q: Finally, out of all the books you have written, which has your favorite world and why?

A:  Probably the Iron Fey series, though Shadow of the Fox is a close second.  I love fantasy and all the fantastic creatures that populate it, so the Nevernever is my favorite world for that alone.  Even though I wouldn’t last a day there without getting eaten by an ogre, a redcap or a kelpie. Maybe if I could find a big gray cat…    

Julie Kagawa, the New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Fey, Blood of Eden, Talon, and Shadow of the Fox series was born in Sacramento, California. But nothing exciting really happened to her there. So, at the age of nine she and her family moved to Hawaii, which she soon discovered was inhabited by large carnivorous insects, colonies of house geckos, and frequent hurricanes. She spent much of her time in the ocean, when she wasn’t getting chased out of it by reef sharks, jellyfish, and the odd eel.

When not swimming for her life, Julie immersed herself in books, often to the chagrin of her schoolteachers, who would find she hid novels behind her Math textbooks during class. Her love of reading led her to pen some very dark and gruesome stories, complete with colored illustrations, to shock her hapless teachers. The gory tales faded with time, but the passion for writing remained, long after she graduated and was supposed to get a real job.

To pay the rent, Julie worked in different bookstores over the years, but discovered the managers frowned upon her reading the books she was supposed to be shelving. So she turned to her other passion: training animals. She worked as a professional dogtrainer for several years, dodging Chihuahua bites and overly enthusiastic Labradors, until her first book sold and she stopped training to write full time.

Julie now lives in North Carolina with her husband, two obnoxious cats, and a pair of Australian Shepherds that have more Instagram followers than she does.

Social Links:

Author website | Facebook | Twitter: @jkagawa | Instagram: @juliekagawaauthor | Goodreads

The Sea Glass Cottage by RaeAnne Thayne – Feature, Excerpt, Q&A

Publisher: HQN Books

Publication Date: March 17, 2020

Genre: Romance, Fiction

Buy Links: 

Harlequin | Indiebound| Amazon | Barnes & Noble  | Books-A-Million | Target | Walmart | Google | iBooks | Kobo

I am so excited to be featuring this lovely book on my blog today! Plus there is an excerpt AND an author Q&A! Thank you so much to Harlequin for having me on the tour!

From the New York Times bestselling author RaeAnne Thayne comes a brand-new novel for fans of Debbie Macomber and Susan Wiggs. RaeAnne Thayne tells the story of an emotional homecoming that brings hope and healing to three generations of women.

The life Olivia Harper always dreamed of isn’t so dreamy these days. The 16-hour work days are unfulfilling and so are things with her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when she hears that her estranged mother, Juliet, has been seriously injured in a car accident, Liv has no choice but to pack up her life and head home to beautiful Cape Sanctuary on the Northern California coast.

It’s just for a few months—that’s what Liv keeps telling herself. But the closer she gets to Cape Sanctuary, the painful memories start flooding back: Natalie, her vibrant, passionate older sister who downward-spiraled into addiction. The fights with her mother who enabled her sister at every turn. The overdose that took Natalie, leaving her now-teenaged daughter, Caitlin, an orphan.

As Liv tries to balance her own needs with those of her injured mother and an obstinate, resentful fifteen-year-old, it becomes clear that all three Harper women have been keeping heartbreaking secrets from one another. And as those secrets are revealed, Liv, Juliet, and Caitlin will see that it’s never too late—or too early—to heal family wounds and find forgiveness.”

1

Olivia

Olivia shoved her hands into her pockets against the damp Seattle afternoon. Nothing would take the chill from her bones, though. She knew that. Even five days of sick leave, huddling in her bed and mindlessly bingeing on cooking shows hadn’t done anything but make her crave cake.

She couldn’t hide away in her apartment forever. Eventually she was going to have to reenter life and go back to work, which was why she stood outside this coffee shop in a typical spring drizzle with her heart pounding and her stomach in knots.

This was stupid. The odds of anything like that happening to her again were ridiculously small. She couldn’t let one man battling mental illness and drug abuse control the rest of her life.

She could do this.

She reached out to pull the door open, but before she could make contact with the metal handle, her cell phone chimed from her pocket.

She knew instantly from the ringtone it was her best friend from high school, who still lived in Cape Sanctuary with her three children.

Talking to Melody was more important than testing her resolve by going into the Kozy Kitchen right now, she told herself. She answered the call, already heading back across the street to her own apartment.

“Mel,” she answered, her voice slightly breathless from the adrenaline still pumping through her and from the stairs she was racing up two at a time. “I’m so glad you called.”

Glad didn’t come close to covering the extent of her relief. She really hadn’t wanted to go into that coffee shop. Not yet. Why should she make herself? She had coffee at home and could have groceries delivered when she needed them. 

“You know why I’m calling, then?” Melody asked, a strange note in her voice.

“I know it’s amazing to hear from you. You’ve been on my mind.”

She was not only a coward but a lousy friend. She hadn’t checked in with Melody in a few weeks, despite knowing her friend was going through a life upheaval far worse than witnessing an attack on someone else.

As she unlocked her apartment, the cutest rescue dog in the world, a tiny, fluffy cross between a Chihuahua and a miniature poodle, gyrated with joy at the sight of her.

Yet another reason she didn’t have to leave. If she needed love and attention, she only had to call her dog and Otis would come running.

She scooped him up and let him lick her face, already feeling some of her anxiety calm.

“I was thinking how great it would be if you and the boys could come up and stay with me for a few days when school gets out for the summer,” she said now to Melody. “We could take the boys to the Space Needle, maybe hop the ferry up to the San Juans and go whale watching. They would love it. What do you think?”

The words seemed to be spilling out of her, too fast. She was babbling, a weird combination of relief that she hadn’t had to face that coffee shop and guilt that she had been wrapped up so tightly with her own life that she hadn’t reached out to a friend in need.

“My apartment isn’t very big,” she went on without waiting for an answer. “But I have an extra bedroom and can pick up some air beds for the boys. They’ve got some really comfortable ones these days. I’ve got a friend who says she stayed on one at her sister’s house in Tacoma and slept better than she does on her regular mattress. I’ve still got my car, though I hardly drive it in the city, and the boys would love to meet Otis. Maybe we could even drive to Olympic National Park, if you wanted.”

“Liv. Stop.” Melody cut her off. “Though that all sounds amazing and I’m sure the boys would love it, we can talk about that later. You have no idea why I called, do you?”

“I… Why did you call?”

Melody was silent for a few seconds. “I’m afraid there’s been an accident,” she finally said.

The breath ran out of Olivia like somebody had popped one of those air mattresses with a bread knife.

“Oh no. Is it one of your boys?” Oh please, she prayed. Don’t let it be one of the boys.

Melody had been through enough over the past three months, since her jerkhole husband ran off with one of his high school students.

“No, honey. It’s not my family. It’s yours.”

Her words seemed to come from far away and it took a long time for them to pierce through.

No. Impossible.

Fear rushed back in, swamping her like a fast-moving tide. She sank blindly onto the sofa.

“Is it Caitlin?”

“It’s not your niece. Stop throwing out guesses and just let me tell you. It’s your mom. Before you freak out, let me just say, first of all, she’s okay, from what I understand. I don’t have all the details but I do know she’s in the hospital, but she’s okay. It could have been much worse.”

Her mom. Olivia tried to picture Juliet lying in a hospital bed and couldn’t quite do it. Juliet Harper didn’t have time to be in a hospital bed. She was always hurrying somewhere, either next door to Sea Glass Cottage to the garden center the Harper family had run in Cape Sanctuary for generations or down the hill to town to help a friend or to one of Caitlin’s school events.

“What happened?” 

“She had a bad fall and suffered a concussion and I think some broken bones.”

Olivia’s stomach twisted. A concussion. Broken bones. Oh man. “Fell where? Off one of the cliffs near the garden center?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know all the details yet. This just happened this morning and it’s still early for the gossip to make all the rounds around town. I assumed you already knew. That Caitlin or someone would have called you. I was only checking in to see how I can help.”

This morning. She glanced at her watch. Her mother had been in an accident hours earlier and Olivia was just finding out about it now, in late afternoon.

Someone should have told her—if not Juliet herself, then, as Melody said, at least Caitlin.

Given their recent history, it wasn’t particularly surprising that her niece, raised by Olivia’s mother since she was a baby, hadn’t bothered to call. Olivia wasn’t Caitlin’s favorite person right now. These days, during Olivia’s regular video chats with her mother, Caitlin never popped in to say hi anymore. At fifteen, Caitlin was abrasive and moody and didn’t seem to like Olivia much, for reasons she didn’t quite understand.

“I’m sure someone tried to reach me but my phone has been having trouble,” she lied. Her phone never had trouble. She made sure it was always in working order, since so much of her freelance business depended on her clients being able to reach her and on her being able to Tweet or post something on the fly.

“I’m glad I checked in, then.”

“Same here. Thank you.”

Several bones broken and a long recovery. Oh dear. That would be tough on Juliet, especially this time of year when the garden center always saw peak business.

“Thank you for telling me. Is she in the hospital there in Cape Sanctuary or was she taken to one of the bigger cities?”

“I’m not sure. I can call around for you, if you want.”

“I’ll find out. You have enough to worry about.”

“Keep me posted. I’m worried about her. She’s a pretty great lady, that mom of yours.”

Olivia shifted, uncomfortable as she always was when others spoke about her mother to her. Everyone loved her, with good reason. Juliet was warm, gracious, kind to just about everyone in their beachside community of Cape Sanctuary.

Which made Olivia’s own awkward, tangled relationship with her mother even harder to comprehend.

“Will you be able to come home for a few days?”

Home. How could she go home when she couldn’t even walk into the coffee shop across the street?

“I don’t know. I’ll have to see what’s going on there.”

How could she possibly travel all the way to Northern California? A complicated mix of emotions seemed to lodge like a tangled ball of yarn in her chest whenever she thought about her hometown, which she loved and hated in equal measures.

The town held so much guilt and pain and sorrow. Her father was buried there and so was her sister. Each room in Sea Glass Cottage stirred like the swirl of dust motes with memories of happier times.

Olivia hadn’t been back in more than a year. She kept meaning to make a trip but something else always seemed to come up. She usually went for the holidays at least, but the previous year she’d backed out of even that after work obligations kept her in Seattle until Christmas Eve and a storm had made last-minute travel difficult. She had spent the holiday with friends instead of with her mother and Caitlin and had felt guilty that she had enjoyed it much more than the previous few when she had gone home.

She couldn’t avoid it now, though. A trip back to Cape Sanctuary was long overdue, especially if her mother needed her.

  1. What made you write this story? (The “story behind the story”)

That’s a very long “story behind the story”! My husband of 34 years was adopted at birth to a wonderful loving famiy and never knew anything about his birth parents. He was never really interested, though I always wondered. He took a DNA test a few years ago before going in for a major surgery, just out of curiosity so our kids could know something about his ethnic heritage, and was astonished a few months later when results from Ancestry.com came in linking him to several close relatives on his maternal side. He wasn’t going to do anything about it but through a very strange sequence of events, he eventually connected with three half-brothers, an aunt and several uncles (including one who has been our neighbor and friend for more than twenty years without either us knowing the connection!). Unfortunately, my husband’s birth mother died several years ago so he never had the chance to meet her but my husband now has a wonderful relationship with his brothers, who have embraced and welcomed him. I have heard of these kind of stories before and after living through the amazing results from a simple DNA test, I wanted to write about someone trying to trace her father. That’s one of the underlying subplots to THE SEA GLASS COTTAGE.

  1. Which character do you most relate to in the story and why?

I love all of them but probably am most drawn to Juliet, who yearns for those she loves to be happy. That’s a universal mom need, I think.  Also, she hesitates to lean on others even when she really needs the help because she doesn’t want to be a burden and feels as if her role is to caretake those she loves instead of the other way around. I can definitely relate to this one!

  1. Do you have a place you go to in order to clear your head like Olivia did?

I don’t live by the ocean, unfortunately, but I do live in the mountains of Utah. Ten minutes from my home, I can be in a gorgeous wilderness area where I can walk and think and meditate. We are heading into the most beautiful time of year here, where the mountains turn green with new growth and wildflowers begin to pop out. I can’t wait! 

  1. Is this based on a real place?

Cape Sanctuary is kind of an amalgamation of some of my favorite spots along the Pacific coast, a mix of Carmel, California and Cannon Beach, Oregon. It’s loosely based near Trinidad, California. I only wish it really existed!

  1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?

I started out in journalism in high school and discovered I loved telling stories. After graduating in journalism, I spent ten years at a daily newspaper as a reporter and editor but dreamed of writing a romance novel some day. When I was on maternity leave with our oldest (who is now 30!), I started my first book. It took me about 5 years of tinkering with it, dealing with rejections, rewriting and starting something new before I sold my first two books to Bantam Loveswept in 1995. I’ve been writing full time since 1997 when our second child was born. The Sea Glass Cottage is my 63rd book. I get a little overwhelmed when I think about all those words!

  1. What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Like all my books, the core story is that we’re all here to learn how to take care of each other. All my books have the underlying theme that our lives become better and more fulfilling when we reach out to help and lift someone else. The world can sometimes feel ugly and angry. I feel like there’s an increasing need for us all to focus on trying a little harder to be kind. Life is filled with pain and trials but it can also be beautiful and joyful at the same time.

  1. What drew you into this particular genre?

I still consider all my books romance novels at heart because that is the genre I have adored since I was eleven years old. My books will always have some kind of love story in them! But my hardcovers also have provided a wonderful chance to explore deeper relationship issues: Healing a rift between a mother and a daughter, finding peace when a relationship with a sister ended in tragedy, finding common ground between an aunt and a niece. 

  1. If you could sit down with any character in your book, what would you ask them and why?

I would probably ask Juliet why she kept so many secrets from those who might have been able to help her deal better with the challenges she faces.

  1. What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?

Right new I think it’s a close tie between Facebook and Instagram, probably weighted a little more to Facebook. I don’t use Twitter much.

  1. What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?

Focus on the emotions you want your readers to feel in your stories. Readers love finding authors who can carry them away with their storytelling, making them feel what the characters feel. They want that emotional ride! Find the kind of stories you love to tell, focus on your strengths and constantly keep stretching yourself in new directions. 

  1. What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?

Yes! Always ☺ The last book in my Haven Point series, SUMMER AT LAKE HAVEN, comes out June 23. This is Samantha Fremont’s book, for those who have read others in the series. It also includes a surprise novella. Next up will be a standalone Christmas book in an all-new community, Silver Bells, Colorado. CHRISTMAS AT HOLIDAY HOUSE will be out in late September. And I recently spent three days at a California beach house with writer friends plotting my next hardcover and can’t wait to start writing it! THE PATH TO SUNSHINE COVE (tentative title!) will also be set in Cape Sanctuary and will be out April 2021.

  1. Where is your favorite place to write?

I am the luckiest of writers because I have my own office. Several years ago, we made the impulsive decision to buy the house adjacent to ours. It was rundown and unsightly and kind of blighted the view from our backyard. Our plan was to fix it up to increase our own property value and then rent it out but after the renovation, I loved it too much to rent it out so I took it over. I have loved it! With a special needs son who has multiple disabilities and requires total care, life at my house is at times chaotic and messy but I always have such a sense of peace and calm when I go to my office. And I love that I can walk through the backyard in my jammies to go to work.

  1. What do you like best about your new book?

I love the peace and healing that came to the characters from being honest with their loved ones and opening their hearts to second chances.

  1. Do you have a favorite character in The Sea Glass Cottage?

This is a hard question because all my characters become cherished friends when I’m writing a book and I love them all but I really adore Henry. He is just an amazing hero for Juliet ☺

  1. What inspired you to become a writer?

I have been a voracious reader all my life and have loved romance novels since I used to steal them out of my mom’s room when I was still a preadolescent! I always used to tell stories to my friends, usually involving our latest celebrity crushes. I didn’t know I was destined to become a writer at the time but when I look back, I see all the things that set me on the path. I actually wanted to be an actress and was very involved in drama in high school, including performing in a repertory theater company, but my mom persuaded me to take a journalism class my junior year and I fell in love with telling stories. Even as I went into journalism through college and my subsequent career as a reporter and editor, I dreamed of writing a romance novel. I never imagined some day I could say I’ve written sixty-something of them!

New York Times bestselling author RaeAnne Thayne finds inspiration in the beautiful northern Utah mountains where she lives with her family. Her books have won numerous honors, including six RITA Award nominations from Romance Writers of America and Career Achievement and Romance Pioneer awards from RT Book Reviews. She loves to hear from readers and can be reached through her website at www.raeannethayne.com.

Social Links:

Author Website| Twitter: @RaeAnneThayne | Facebook: AuthorRaeAnneThayne | Instagram: @RaeAnneThayne | Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/116118.RaeAnne_Thayne

Cast in Wisdom by Michelle Sagara – Excerpt and Q&A

Publisher: Mira Books

Publication Date: January 28, 2020

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Buy Links:

Harlequin | Indiebound | Amazon| Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Target | Walmart | Google | iBooks | Kobo

I am very excited to feature Cast in Wisdom by Michelle Sagara! I am a little behind on the series but I’ve read some of them and LOVE these books. They’re so cool! They would make a great TV show. Check out the Excerpt and Author Q&A below! Thank you to Harper Collins for having me on the tour!

“In the aftermath of the events in the High Halls, there are loose ends. One of those loose ends is the fieflord, Candallar. In an attempt to understand his involvement—with the Barrani, with the High Court, and with the much hated Arcanum—Kaylin has been sent to the fiefs.

She has mixed feelings about this. There’s nothing mixed about her feelings when she discovers a very unusual building in the border zone between two fiefs, and far more questions are raised than are answered. Her attempt to get answers leads her back to the Imperial Palace and its resident Dragon librarian, the Arkon.

Things that were lost in the dim past were not, perhaps, destroyed or obliterated—and what remains appears to be in the hands of a fieflord and his allies—allies who would like to destroy Kaylin’s friends, the Emperor, and possibly the Barrani High Court itself. This is bad.

What’s worse: The librarian who hates to leave his library has a very strong interest in the things that might, just might, have been preserved, and—he is leaving his library to do in person research, no matter what Kaylin, the Hawks, or the Emperor think.

He is not the only one. Other people are gathering in the border zone; people who believe knowledge is power. But power is also power, and it might be too late for the Empire’s most dedicated Historian—and Kaylin and her friends, who’ve been tasked with his safety.”

Q&A with Michelle Sagara

Q: Your Chronicles of Elantra series is 15 books deep. How do you keep up with the characters and the plot? What do your notes look like?

A: I have a wiki that is not online, and I attempt to keep it updated as I write. This is not always as easy or tidy as it sounds. The wiki (I use VoodooPad) is easily searchable, but I have to remember to search it, and sometimes I don’t.

I am not a visual person, at all. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I had known my husband for years, and it wasn’t until someone in the store asked what color his eyes were that I realized I didn’t know. Since he’s blond (Finnish on his mother’s side), I assumed that they were blue, and after some thought said, “probably blue”, which caused mild confusion. Had I not known my husband for years? I went home and this time looked and paid attention to what I was seeing: they were blue.

Because eye color had not–obviously–been of great import to me, eye color was the start of my note-keeping. I needed to try to track eye color of characters because I knew I’d forget. And… I still got it wrong between books. T_T.

But… the internals of the characters–what they want, where they’ve come from, the experiences that produced them, I viscerally know. Height? No, not really. Shape? Well, I remember which ones are human, Barrani, Dragon, Tha’alani, etc. Hates? Likes? Yes. Goals as well, if they have them. I remember their place in the hierarchies they occupy, because in some ways, that’s part of their interior makeup.

But sometimes, when in the flow of the words, I… don’t remember to go and check the wiki for the details that, in the moment of writing, aren’t important to me.

My notes, however, and all cross-linked to each other, because of the wiki format.

Q: What kind of research do you do for your books? Is it mandatory (for you) for all your books?

A: It’s very much on a book-by-book basis. At this point in the writing, most of the research is… all the previous books. 

I have had books which are more research intensive, but in general I read history in bits and pieces, and file away what I’ve read. It becomes part of the mental soil from which books grow. 

So, there are specific books in which I realized, as I was writing, that I didn’t know something that I needed to know, and that stopped the writing dead as I then attempted to find answers to the questions that arose from my own ignorance. I think, as I get older, I realize far more easily when I don’t know something and need to know it.

But I’m what’s generally called a pantser. I don’t have a plan when I start; I usually only have the ending. To know exactly what I don’t know and need to know is therefore not entirely predictable. 

…and I admit that once I’ve started building bits and pieces of world, I become increasingly impatient because I just want to dive in and start writing. So sometimes I start, write, and then stop because something a specific character would know, I don’t know. And then I set the book aside and start to look at things.

I think it’s important to know what my characters know, or at least what my viewpoint characters know.

Q: What is it about fantasy that makes you love it above any other genre?

A: This is a harder question to answer, because it’s so specific; it’s entirely Michelle-context. Does that context overlap with other readers? Yes. But not all of it, and not simultaneously.

I’m a product of my culture, my reading culture, and my linguistic limitations; I speak only English, and can only read French with a fifty percent chance of understanding it.

So: books I read and loved when young had fantasy elements, were fantasy. I read a lot of fairy tales. Anything I could get my hands on. Portal fantasy like the Narnia books. Fantasy like McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Fantasy like The Hobbit, and eventually, Lord of the Rings. 

I also read a lot of mythology books–at first for kids, and later, translations of plays and sagas that hadn’t been written with children in mind.

I read other books, books without fantasy elements, growing up–but the things that spoke to me most strongly were those. They were the books of my developing reader heart. As I traversed the divide between childhood and not-childhood (does anyone truly ever feel adult on the inside of their own head? I always feel like I’ve gotten better at performing adulthood, but I can’t quite feel it as my base state), I found other fantasy. I also found books like The Left Hand of Darkness

And all of the reading overlapped with life experiences; everything on the inside of my head, like the soil out of which story grows and evolves.

I loved fantasy as a reader. I loved reading as a reader. When I made the choice to start writing, I wrote what I loved. 

Q: If you didn’t write, what would you be doing?

A: I cannot actually answer that question, because I have always written. From about six years of age, on. I didn’t write for other people, and I hid all my writing because I didn’t want to open it up to judgement and criticism. 

If you mean, what would I do to make money, I’m not sure. Work, yes–but I’m not sure doing what. I didn’t expect, growing up, that my work would be my life; a job was a necessity, because having a roof over one’s head and food on the table was a necessity. I didn’t therefore pursue a career about which I could be passionate until I started to write for submission.

If I worked for someone else for a living, I would still write, because I always did. Would I write as often or as consistently? Probably not. There were gap months in university in which I didn’t write at all. But I always came back to it because writing words was an act of communication.

How, if I didn’t share them?

Good question. It was an act of communication with myself. It was a way of seeing, more clearly, things I believed or things that moved me, that I had not fully processed or pragmatically understood.

It was also like an exorcism: I put these words down so that they didn’t envelop and overwhelm the rest of my thoughts.

Q: What is the most difficult thing about your writing process?

A: The answer will depend entirely on when the question is asked, sadly.

If, for instance, I’m starting a new book, the answer will be: beginnings. I start a book several times, trying to find the right tone, the right voice. The longest not right attempt at a beginning was thirty-two pages. Most peter out at between four and six. 

At the moment, I’m revising, so the answer is: Revision.

Writing, once I have a beginning, is about flow. The story is like a river; I can follow it. I can swim in it. I can drown in it if I don’t remember to come up for air. But the entirety of the book flows from beginning to end. I don’t write out of order. I don’t write to an outline. Part of writing, or the joy of it, is in the discovery. I have an idea of where things are going and how they’ll get there, but the act of writing the book produces a lot – sometimes a LOT – of surprises.

What I know is the end. I understand the world. I don’t know how the characters will reach the end from the beginning, because even when I do know, I’m often wrong.

So, I now have a finished book. I revise it for submission–but I’m aware that I’m too close to it, and that my editor is going to be reading it and pointing out the parts that didn’t work for her. 

Here’s the trick to editing: editors read as readers. Their editorial experience gives them the abililty to explain why they had the reader reaction they did. I’m not going to argue about the editor’s reaction to the book. Even if I disagree with it, what am I going to say? No you didn’t react that way? Clearly, they did.

What I can do is examine why the scene didn’t work for the editor. Why it wasn’t compelling enough or believeable enough. If I want to keep that scene in this book, I have work to do.

But. Revision requires–for me–an entirely different frame of mind. It’s more objective; objectivity is required for me to assess structure and structural changes. Subjectivity is required for me – and let me take this moment to stress that all writers have different processes and I’m talking about only mine – to write.

And I can get caught up between the two states, until I can’t tell what’s objective and what’s subjective.

The corollary to that is that the book is a metaphoric river, and it is very difficult to restructure a river. I can’t just cut out one part and move it to another part if the terrain and the riverbed are not substantially the same for the two parts.

Which means I frequently end up having to take a chapter which mostly works and throw the entire thing out and start it again because I can see the seams in the revision if I don’t. 

Q: Finally, what do you want readers to leave with after finishing your books?

A: I write books because reading books moved me. A lot. I could get lost in a book, sink into it, follow it, think about it, daydream about it. 

Parts of that were intellectual, but the drive to be intellectual about a book I’d read came from a strong emotional response to it. What I want readers to leave with is the emotional response to the story and characters I had, and built, while writing it. I want to open a window into what the book made me feel as the writer.

Writing story is, in some ways, building a vessel that is solid enough to carry the emotional weight of the ending.

“You are such a coward,” Bellusdeo said when they’d reached the relative safety of the street. The roads in and around Helen were sparsely populated at the busiest of times, which this wasn’t. They would soon join roads that were crowded at the slowest of times, but Kaylin was dressed for the office. The Hawk emblazoned on her tabard encouraged people to make space. 

Had Bellusdeo hit the streets in her Draconic form, she’d have cleared far more of it—but some of that space would be created by panic, and panic could cause both accidents and the type of traffic congestion that caused the Swords to investigate. Also, it was illegal. 

“It’s not cowardice,” Kaylin replied, scanning the windows of the buildings above ground level. 

“What would you call it?” 

“Wisdom.” 

“Oh, please.”

“There’s no point in arguing with them now. Sedarias thinks it’ll be months before this ridiculous command performance occurs. We have months to attempt to talk her out of—” 

“Out of expressing any appreciation or gratitude?” 

Ugh. “You know they’re grateful. This isn’t about gratitude. It’s about rubbing that gratitude in the faces of the Barrani who attempted to brand you a—an army. An attacking army.” 

“I believe the term you want is Flight.” Bellusdeo’s eyes were orange. 

Hope squawked at the Dragon. Kaylin didn’t understand what he was saying. Bellusdeo did, but her eyes didn’t get any lighter. 

“You know as well as I do,” Kaylin said, emboldened by Hope’s entry into the discussion, “that this is not the time to visit the High Halls. I’m not sure the Emperor has ever been a guest there.” 

“We visited the Halls—more or less—when they came under attack, and the Barrani needed our help.” 

“From the outside. No one invited the Dragon Court in.” 

The chorus of Barrani voices that sometimes offered entirely unasked for opinions on the inside of her head maintained their silence for half a beat. The first person to break that silence was the fieflord. His words were tinged with amusement. 

You cannot expect that the cohort would suddenly cease to cause any difficulty, surely? 

I’m almost certain that the cohort understands why inviting a Dragon—any Dragon—to attend the High Halls would be a disaster. 

For the Dragons? 

For everyone. 

I believe some of the more conservative High Lords might be surprisingly supportive of such an invitation. 

Of course they would. It would be their best shot at killing Bellusdeo. If Bellusdeo died, there would be no new Dragons. No hatchlings. 

There’s no way the Emperor would give her permission to attend. 

Nightshade concurred. In his position, I would not. But I would be prepared, should I refuse to grant that permission, for all-out war. My brother has grown inordinately fond of her; living with you has made him reckless. 

He’s not— 

He has known Bellusdeo for even less time than you. He is willing to trust her in a fashion no one older would. And do not cite the Consort, please. 

Kaylin hadn’t intended to. The Consort seems to like her. 

Kaylin, the Consort “likes” me. But she does not trust me. 

She does. 

“Stop making that face, or it will freeze that way.” Kaylin reddened. 

I understand that you are attempting to avoid the Emperor’s ire. I consider this wise on your part. It is not, however, the ire of the Emperor that will be your most significant problem; he will do nothing to harm Bellusdeo. 

I know that. 

It is the ire of the High Lords. Sedarias is, I believe, genuinely grateful for Bellusdeo’s intervention. She does wish to honor her. But gratitude can be expressed privately—and in most cases, it is. Only rulers feel obliged to make that expression public because the public expression elevates those to whom one feels gratitude. It makes clear to witnesses that the aid tendered—in whatever fashion—is important and significant. The Emperor has codified such significance in public ceremonies and public titles, has he not? 

Kaylin shrugged. 

For Sedarias, however, genuine gratitude is not an impediment to political displays. She can be genuinely grateful and simultaneously, extremely political. She wishes to highlight Bellusdeo’s aid and import to Mellarionne. Why do you think this is? 

Kaylin thought about this. After a long pause, she said, She wants to thumb her nose at the rest of the High Lords, many of whom weren’t helpful at all? 

Nightshade’s silence was one of encouragement. 

Bellusdeo’s a Dragon. So…her presence means that even Dragons—with whom you’ve had a war or two— 

Three. 

Fine, a war or three, were more helpful, or at least more of a genuine ally, than any of the Barrani. 

Yes. I believe that is some part of Sedarias’s intent. That’s not going to help Mellarionne any. 

Perhaps, perhaps not. She will do so as An’Mellarionne. It would be considered a very bold move—but there are those who would assume that Sedarias is confident in her own power, and they would hesitate to challenge her. 

“If you are speaking about me,” Bellusdeo said, her voice almost a whisper of sound, “I must insist that you include me.” 

Hope squawked. 

“Well, yes, that could cause some difficulty,” the Dragon replied. “But I dislike Kaylin’s worry. She is mortal.” Squawk. “The marks of the Chosen don’t matter. She’s mortal. I may be a displaced person in these lands; I may no longer have a home or lands of my own. But I am a Dragon.” 

“I’m not exactly worried about you,” Kaylin said. When one golden brow rose in response, she added, “Not about you specifically. But—there’s no way for Dragon and High Halls to combine that isn’t political. Explosively political. On your own, you can survive more than any of the rest of the cohort—or me. But you won’t be on your own. The cohort won’t abandon you.” 

It was the Dragon’s turn to snort. 

Kaylin reconsidered her words and chose better ones. “Most of the cohort wouldn’t abandon you. Annarion wouldn’t. Mandoran wouldn’t. I don’t believe Allaron would either, from what I’ve seen. And you know what the cohort is like. The minute one of them enters combat to save you, they’re all going to rush in. It doesn’t matter if they’re there for your sake or their friends’; they’ll be there. But this is political, and anything political is far above my pay grade.” 

“You don’t seem to find this insulting.” 

“I consider it one of the biggest advantages of my rank. Which is the lowest rank I could be given and still be called a Hawk.” 

“One of? What’s another one?” 

“I’m not in command. I don’t need to make decisions that might cost the lives of other Hawks. No matter what happens in an action, large or small, I won’t have their deaths on my hands.” 

“But you don’t like being a private.” 

“Well, I could be a corporal, and it would still be mostly true. And the pay is higher.” 

“It’s not much higher,” a familiar voice said. It was Mandoran’s. Of course it was. Kaylin didn’t miss a step. 

“I don’t suggest you try to enter the Halls of Law looking like that.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like thin air.” 

“Oh. That.” Mandoran caused other people some consternation as he materialized to the side of Kaylin that Bellusdeo wasn’t occupying. To be fair, most of the street didn’t notice; people always had their own problems and their own schedules. “I was going to follow Teela into the office, but Teela’s not heading there directly.” 

“So you followed us?” 

“Not most of the way, no. I decided to head straight here to wait, but I caught up because you’re doing the Hawk-walk.” He glanced at Bellusdeo. “For what it’s worth, I think insisting on your presence on the inside of the High Halls is suicidal.” 

“Oh?” The Dragon’s voice was cool. “For who?” 

Mandoran grinned. “Mostly Kaylin.” 

Kaylin watched as flecks of gold appeared in Bellusdeo’s eyes. Mandoran had, once again, managed to set Bellusdeo at ease. Kaylin wondered if that was why he’d chosen to speak when he had. He never treated the Dragon with respect; had the Emperor been present for most of their spats, she wasn’t certain Mandoran wouldn’t be a pile of bleeding ash. Well, ash, because ash didn’t bleed, but still. 

“You left the rest of the cohort behind?” Kaylin asked. 

“We had a vote, and Helen decided it was safest to send me.” 

“She was the tie-breaker?” 

“Ah, no. She didn’t consider the first choice viable. But— we can all see what I see anyway, so unless there’s an attack, having more than one person here is superfluous. If Teela had been coming directly to the office, someone would have followed Teela.” 

“Not you?” Bellusdeo asked. 

“I had to live with Tain for a few years. Compressed into a few weeks, I might add. He’s stuffy and remarkably straightforward. Also, he hates fun.” 

“He hates mess,” Kaylin said, as they approached the stairs that led into the Halls of Law. 

“Define mess. No, wait, don’t. The problem with Tain—at least for me—is that Teela might actually kill us if we’re indirectly responsible for his death. He’s not like the rest of us; we can’t speak to him without shouting, and even if we can, he doesn’t listen half the time. So…it’s a lot less safe to tail Tain.” 

“I imagine it’s safer to tail Tain than it is to tail Kaylin if you’re worried about Teela’s reaction,” Bellusdeo said, frowning slightly. 

“You need a better imagination.”

Excerpted from Cast In Wisdom by Michelle Sagara, Copyright © 2020 by Michelle Sagara. Published by MIRA Books.

Michelle Sagara is an author, bookseller, and lover of literature based in Toronto. She writes fantasy novels and lives with her husband and her two children, and to her regret has no dogs. Reading is one of her life-long passions, and she is sometimes paid for her opinions about what she’s read by the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. No matter how many bookshelves she buys, there is Never Enough Shelf space. Ever.

A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen – Feature, Excerpt and Author Q&A

Publisher: MIRA Books

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Genre: Sci-fi, Dystopia

Buy Links:

Harlequin| Amazon| Barnes & Noble| Books-a-Million| IndieBound| Apple Books| Kobo| Google Play

I am so excited to feature A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen today on my blog! Plus a few extras to go along with it! Check out an excerpt and a Q&A with the author below! Thank you to Harper Collins for having me on the tour!

An emotional story about what happens after the end of the world, A BEGINNING AT THE END is a tale of four survivors trying to rebuild their personal lives after a literal apocalypse. For commercial readers who enjoy a speculative twist, or their sci-fi with a heavy dose of family and feelings.

Six years after a global pandemic, it turns out that the End of the World was more like a big pause. Coming out of quarantine, 2 billion unsure survivors split between self-governing big cities, hippie communes, and wasteland gangs. When the father of a presumed-dead pop star announces a global search for his daughter, four lives collide: Krista, a cynical event planner; Moira, the ex-pop star in hiding; Rob, a widowed single father; and Sunny, his seven-year-old daughter. As their lives begin to intertwine, reports of a new outbreak send the fragile society into a panic. And when the government enacts new rules in response to the threat, long-buried secrets surface, causing Sunny to run away seeking the truth behind her mother’s death. Now, Krista, Rob, and Moira must finally confront the demons of their past in order to hit the road and reunite with Sunny — before a coastal lockdown puts the world on pause again.”

Q: Parent characters are a large part of A Beginning at the End. Did you know your character’s family backgrounds before you began? How do the characters take form in your writing process?

A: Somewhat. Usually the core problem comes first in my drafting process. I tend to write in layers and my initial drafts are always very light — initial scenes may only be about ¼ of their final length because I don’t know the characters too well yet. At that stage, I’m trying to find the main conflict of the scene and the voice for their characters. I typically need 5-7 passes through a book to turn it from a 45k-50k word skeleton to a reasonably polished 90-100k word draft. During that time, the characters start to form.

As an example, my current work in progress (which will be released after 2021’s upcoming WE COULD BE HEROES), I’m on my third pass through for the first act and only now am I beginning to understand each character’s unique voice as well as their physical appearances. Core conflicts (such as character X has trouble with character Y) are established during the initial outline phase as part of the initial concept, but the how and why those conflicts happen (Is it family history? Is it a traumatic event? Is it sibling rivalry?), that takes a little longer to establish. 

For the characters in A BEGINNING AT THE END, I started out immediately knowing what drove Krista and Rob. Moira didn’t really become fully three-dimensional until much later, and in fact in early revisions, she was just a minor supporting character. My agent noted that she was far too interesting to push to the side, so the book was rebuilt around her to hold equal footing to Rob and Krista.

Q: Where did you take inspiration for this pandemic? Do you have any other book or film recommendations?

A: Though it wasn’t a direct inspiration for this book, there’s a scene in the second season of The Walking Dead that began the train of thought for A BEGINNING AT THE END. It was the season on Hershel’s farm, and there’s a scene where Lori is trying to go over homework with her son Carl. A lot of viewers mocked the scene at the time with comments like “Why would you do math in the zombie apocalypse?” but I thought that was a smart bit of human grounding against a fantastical backdrop. Because those characters didn’t know if and when the apocalypse would end, and I think it makes sense that 1) a mom would try to keep some form of normalcy for her son 2) they wouldn’t just assume the world was completely over.

Because a lot of apocalyptic fiction focuses on either the event itself or a grimdark survival world, that scene sparked a lot of ideas for me — what if society did crawl back from the brink, and instead of a true “end of the world” it was more like a big pause button? Then all these people would move past day-to-day survival and suddenly have a lot of trauma to unpack, and i hadn’t really seen that covered much at the time. That seemed really interesting to me, much more so than the idea of tribal factions attacking each other to survive.

Q: Which main character is your favorite? And which was the hardest to write?

A: It’s been interesting seeing early reader feedback because the “favorite character” opinion has been pretty evenly split. I think that’s a good sign that things are pretty balanced. For me personally, I always viewed Krista as the main character in this book and it was originally written with her to be the main focus (the original draft of this from 2011ish only had her POV and Rob’s POV). She has such a snappy voice that it’s just fun to write her responses and reactions to stuff, and a big challenge came from cutting out unnecessary dialogue that made it in there simply because she was so fun to write.

The hardest character to write was definitely Sunny. Simply because I needed to get into the head of a seven-year-old. Her POV was one of the last major structural changes my agent recommended before we sold this to my publisher and it was tricky my daughter was still very young at that point (she’s still only five). I ran those chapters by my friends who had survived parenting those years for accuracy: complexity of thought, vocabulary, rhythm, etc.

Q: Your characters struggle with confronting their past while their future is so uncertain. What are some important lessons you’ve learned as a writer that you previously struggled with?

A: I think the keys to success as a writer are also keys to a happy and fulfilled life: don’t give up and keep an open mind. Every writer I know that started around my time eventually broke through and got an agent by improving their craft through feedback and simply chipping away. If one book wasn’t good enough, then it got shelved as a stepping stone and they marched forward. Doing that requires a certain amount of humility because it recognizes that you’ve got room to improve, and that improvement is going to come from listening to others rather than being defensive. Those are hard lessons to learn so I try to tell new writers that right away, so they understand the value of harsh-but-true constructive criticism from critique partners — you’ll never make it without that.

Q: What is a genre you don’t think you’d ever write? A Beginning at the End and Here and Now and Then are both SF, do you think you would ever write something that’s vastly different? What draws you to SF?

A: Writing character-driven stories in sci-fi settings comes pretty naturally to me, as it takes my favorite type of story (slice of life) and my favorite genre and brings them together. I’m fortunate that the market has turned around on that now to support books like mine. If I wrote something different, I imagine it would lean further in one direction or another — either a contemporary drama or space opera. I am also a big fan of gothic horror, and I would love to try a haunted house story at some point.

As for what draws me to sci-fi, I can’t put my finger on it but it’s been really important to me my entire life. I grew up on Star Wars and Robotech as cornerstones of my media influences. At the same time, I’ve never really been too into fantasy despite them often being opposite sides of the same coin. My wife loves both sci-fi and fantasy, and there are things she loves that I just can’t get into like The Elder Scrolls.

Q: What are some of your writing goals for the future?

A: Keep writing and not run out of ideas! In a perfect world, I’d love to be able to be a full-time author — which is basically 50% writing and 50% the business of being an author. I don’t think that’s feasible since I live in Silicon Valley and need health insurance for a family situation, so I will likely always have one foot in corporate life unless the political landscape changes regarding medical care.

An obvious dream would be to have one of my books be adapted to a movie or TV series — I’m of the mindset that HERE AND NOW AND THEM would work as a movie while A BEGINNING AT THE END has a deep enough world that it would work well as a TV series. I really want to try writing a video game, something like Telltale’s games. And I would love to write for my favorite franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. I’ve been pretty vocal about Clone Wars-era story ideas, and I’m friends with several authors on the Lucasfilm roster, so fingers crossed.

Q: If there was a global disaster in the future, what would your plan of action be?

A: Well, I have a bunch of animals and family health issues, so I’d say we’d be pretty screwed. I’m pretty organized and have a diplomatic approach, so hopefully that would earn me an in with some survivalists until society stabilizes.

Q: Both of your books, Here and Now and Then & A Beginning at the End, have a strong emotional foundation. Why did you choose that route?

A: It goes back to my favorite types of stories. To me, the emotional core is always the most important part of any story; it turns it from being surface level entertainment to something that resonates deeper.

Q: How has the success of your first novel affected your writing process for your second novel? Is there anything the first time around you did, that you didn’t do the second time?

A: I am lucky that A BEGINNING AT THE END was mostly finished when we sold it because it had been a project I’d shelved years ago but revised with my agent. I had a complete and fairly polished manuscript, and my editors revisions didn’t affect much of the structure, they were mostly about tightening and adding more flashbacks, more world-building. So in that regard, that process was very similar to HERE AND NOW AND THEN.

However, having now experienced deadlines and commitments on top of a day job and parenting, the biggest change is that I draft by acts rather than the whole thing. For books 3 (WE COULD BE HEROES) and 4 (in WIP stages), I drafted a first act to get a sense of characters and world, then sent that to a few critique partners for their input before investing further energy into it. There’s just no time. Also, I have to limit myself on reading for fun or video games because that time has to be used for writing and editing. Being published is a great privilege but its time demands do create numerous sacrifices.

Q: How do you balance being a reader and being a writer? 

A: I use my phone a lot! I’ve discovered audiobooks, though my preferred method right now is ebooks through Google Play. Their app has a text-to-speech feature which, while nowhere near the quality of real audiobooks, allow me to listen while I’m commuting or doing dishes or whatever, but then also allow me to switch back to reading in the app when I want to. It’s funny, I just don’t read physical books that much now because my time is so compartmentalized that having it available on my phone is the best way to go. 

The great irony about this is that as I’ve gotten to know more authors, agents, and editors, I’m often offered advance review copies by authors I really love and I simply have no time for them.

Q: What does literary success look like to you and with that definition in mind, are you successful? 

A: This is tricky because I think all authors at all stages are looking up at someone and mentally comparing sales and awards. I know I’m doing better than some of my peers and worse than others, and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past year is that it is totally okay to be happy for someone while also jealous of their success. In fact, that is 100% normal.

With that in mind, I think success means that I’m selling enough copies to get the next contract and a chance to audition for licensed franchise work. Aspiring for bestseller status or awards is kind of silly because so many other factors go into that, many of which (marketing budgets, publicity selections) are simply out of your control. But if you keep producing at a high level of quality, I think you’ll be able to gradually grow your readership with each book, and that’s good enough for me.

Also, it’s really cool to hear your book has touched a reader. That level of engagement is always a good measure of success. 

Q: Finally, for you, what makes a book a good book?

A: I think the things that I always look for are interesting characters, emotional conflicts, and good prose. While I appreciate great action scenes or immense worldbuilding, I can often overlook those things if characters, emotions, and prose are all clicking. On the other hand, if I lose any of those main three, I’ll often have to drop a book, even if, say, the worldbuilding is amazing.

Shameless shoutout to some friends: if you want impeccable examples of ALL of those (characters, emotions, prose, action, and worldbuilding), I suggest Fonda Lee’s JADE CITY / JADE WAR and Kat Howard’s AN UNKINDNESS OF MAGICIANS.

Prologue

People were too scared for music tonight. Not that MoJo cared.

Her handlers had broken the news about the low attendance nearly an hour ago with some explanation about how the recent flu epidemic and subsequent rioting and looting kept people at home. They’d served the news with high-end vodka, the good shit imported from Russia, conveniently hidden in a water bottle which she carried from the greenroom to the stage.

“The show must go on,” her father proclaimed, like she was doing humanity a service by performing. She suspected his bravado actually stemmed from the fact that her sophomore album’s second single had stalled at number thirteen—a far cry from the lead single’s number-one debut or her four straight top-five hits off her first album. Either way, the audience, filled with beaming girls a few years younger than herself and their mothers, seemed to agree. Flu or no flu, some people still wanted their songs—or maybe they just wanted normalcy—so MoJo delivered, perfect note after perfect note, each in time to choreographed dance routines. She even gave her trademark smile.

The crowd screamed and sang along, waving their arms to the beat. Halfway through the second song, a peculiar vibe grabbed the audience. Usually, a handful of parents disappeared into their phones, especially as the flu scare had heightened over the past week. This time nearly every adult in the arena was looking at their phone. In the front row, MoJo saw lines of concern on each face.

Before the song even finished, some parents grabbed their children and left, pushing through the arena’s floor seats and funneling to the exit door.

MoJo pushed on, just like she’d always promised her dad. She practically heard his voice over the backup music blasting in her in-ear monitors. There is no sophomore slump. Smile! Between the second and third songs, she gave her customary “Thank you!” and fake talk about how great it was to be wherever they were. New York City, this time, at Madison Square Garden. A girl of nineteen embarking on a tour bigger, more ambitious than she could have ever dreamed and taking the pop world by storm, and yet, she knew nothing real about New York City. She’d never left her hotel room without chaperones and handlers. Not under her dad’s watch.

One long swig of vodka later, and a warmth rushed to her face, so much so that she wondered if it melted her face paint off. She looked off at the side stage, past the elaborate video set and cadre of backup dancers. But where was the gaffer? Why wasn’t anyone at the sound board? The fourth song had a violin section, yet the contracted violinist wasn’t in her spot.

Panic raced through MoJo’s veins, mental checklists of her marks, all trailed by echoes from her dad’s lectures about accountability. Her feet were planted exactly where they should be. Her poise, straight and high. Her last few notes, on key, and her words to the audience, cheerful. It couldn’t have been something she’d done, could it?

No. Not her fault this time. Someone else is facing Dad’s wrath tonight, she thought.

The next song’s opening electronic beats kicked in. Eyes closed, head tilted back, and arms up, her voice pushed out the song’s highest note, despite the fuzziness of the vodka making the vibrato a little harder to sustain. For a few seconds, nothing existed except the sound of her voice and the music behind it— no handlers, no tour, no audience, no record company, no father telling her the next way she’d earn the family fortune—and it almost made the whole thing worth it.

Her eyes opened, body coiled for the middle-eight’s dance routine, but the brightness of the house lights threw her off the beat. The drummer and keyboard player stopped, though the prerecorded backing track continued for a few more seconds before leaving an echo chamber.

No applause. No eyes looked MoJo’s way. Only random yelling and an undecipherable buzz saw of backstage clamor from her in-ear monitors. She stood, frozen, unable to tell if this was from laced vodka or if it was actually unfolding: people—adults and children, parents and daughters— scrambling to the exits, climbing over chairs and tripping on stairs, ushers pushing back at the masses before some turned and ran as well.

Someone grabbed her shoulder and jerked back hard. “We have to go,” said the voice behind her.

“What’s going on?” she asked, allowing the hands to push her toward the stage exit. Steven, her huge forty-something bodyguard, took her by the arm and helped her down the short staircase to the backstage area.

“The flu’s spread,” he said. “A government quarantine. There’s some sort of lockdown on travel. The busing starts tonight. First come, first serve. I think everyone’s trying to get home or get there. I can’t reach your father. Cell phones are jammed up.”

They worked their way through the concrete hallways and industrial lighting of the backstage area, people crossing in a mad scramble left and right. MoJo clutched onto her bottle of vodka, both hands to her chest as Steven ushered her onward. People collapsed in front of her, crying, tripping on their own anxieties, and Steven shoved her around them, apologizing all the way. Something draped over her shoulders, and it took her a moment to realize that he’d put a thick parka around her. She chuckled at the thought of her sparkly halter top and leather pants wrapped in a down parka that smelled like BO, but Steven kept pushing her forward, forward, forward until they hit a set of double doors.

The doors flew open, but rather than the arena’s quiet loading area from a few hours ago, MoJo saw a thick wall of people: all ages and all colors in a current of movement, pushing back and forth. “I’ve got your dad on the line,” Steven yelled over the din, “His car is that way. He wants to get to the airport now. Same thing’s happening back home.” His arm stretched out over her head. “That way! Go!”

They moved as a pair, Steven yelling “excuse me” over and over until the crowd became too dense to overcome. In front of her, a woman with wisps of gray woven into black hair trembled on her knees. Even with the racket around them, MoJo heard her cry. “This is the end. This is the end.”

The end.

People had been making cracks about the End of the World since the flu changed from online rumors to this big thing that everyone talked about all the time. But she’d always figured the “end” meant a giant pit opening, Satan ushering everyone down a staircase to Hell. Not stuck outside Madison Square Garden.

“Hey,” Steven yelled, arms spread out to clear a path through the traffic jam of bodies. “This way!”

MoJo looked at the sobbing woman in front of her, then at Steven. Somewhere further down the road, her father sat in a car and waited. She could feel his pull, an invisible tether that never let her get too far away.

“The end, the end,” the sobbing woman repeated, pausing MoJo in her tracks. But where to go? Every direction just pointed at more chaos, people scrambling with a panic that had overtaken everyone in the loading dock, possibly the neighborhood, possibly all New York City, possibly even the world. And it wasn’t just about a flu.

It was everything.

But… maybe that was good?

No more tours. No more studio sessions. No more threats about financial security, no more lawyer meetings, no more searches through her luggage. No more worrying about hitting every mark. In the studio. Onstage.

In life.

All of that was done.

The very thought caused MoJo to smirk.

If this was the end, then she was going out on her own terms.

“Steven!” she yelled. He turned and met her gaze.

She twisted the cap off the water-turned-vodka bottle, then took most of it down in one long gulp. She poured the remainder on her face paint, a star around her left eye, then wiped it off with her sleeve. The empty bottle flew through the air, probably hitting some poor bloke in the head.

“Tell my dad,” she said, trying extra hard to pronounce the words with the clear British diction she was raised with, “to go fuck himself.”

For an instant, she caught Steven’s widemouthed look, a mix of fear and confusion and disappointment on his face, as though her words crushed his worldview more than the madness around them. But MoJo wouldn’t let herself revel in her first, possibly only victory over her father; she ducked and turned quickly, parka pulled over her head, crushing the product-molded spikes in her hair.

Each step pushing forward, shoulders and arms bumping into her as her eyes locked onto the ground, one step at a time. Left, right, left, then right, all as fast as she could go, screams and car horns and smashing glass building in a wave of desperation around her.

Maybe it was the end. But even though her head was down, she walked with dignity for the first time in years, perhaps ever.Excerpted from A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen, Copyright © 2020 by Mike Chen. Published by MIRA Books. 

Mike Chen is a lifelong writer, from crafting fan fiction as a child to somehow getting paid for words as an adult. He has contributed to major geek websites (The Mary Sue, The Portalist, Tor) and covered the NHL for mainstream media outlets. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, Mike lives in the Bay Area, where he can be found playing video games and watching Doctor Who with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter